Lynn O'Shaughnessy

When teenagers start shopping for colleges, the price is often not something they dwell upon. Which is why I wasn't surprised when a mother recently told me about the experience of her daughter's boyfriend, who will be attending the University of Notre Dame in the fall.

The boy, who intends to major in journalism, was stunned at how little money Notre Dame awarded him, and he is naturally anxious about how he's going to pay for a degree that could cost more than $180,000. Apparently, his parents aren't going to be helping him out much.

I asked if the boy had ever considered less pricey alternatives. For instance, the University of Missouri has one of the finest journalism schools in the country and charges a fraction of Notre Dame's price. The mother, however, replied that this kid was only interested in "prestige" schools. Since I have a pretty good idea of how much journalists make, I'm hoping he can live on prestige for a long time.

I mention this story because it's important to be flexible and realistic about what you can afford. Who wouldn't want to brag about a school that makes others envious? But it won't feel so good when you're stuck with student debt in the six figures and you're wondering if you can afford Tuna Helper this week.

I'm not suggesting, however, that any kid who wasn't born to rich parents should hunt for schools with Wal-Mart prices. If you do that, you might miss some wonderful hidden opportunities. College administrators, who love to tell prospective families that the sticker price is often irrelevant, understand that most parents dismiss this as baloney. But odd as this will seem, the price can bear little resemblance to the stated cost. In fact, in plenty of cases, a seemingly expensive school can end up being cheaper than a state university.

An old friend of mine can happily attest to the veracity of this claim. Like a lot of families, Patti and her husband let her daughter Jenny assemble her own list of schools. Kids select schools with their emotions, which is OK if parents don't mind picking up a potentially obscene tab or they don't mind strapping a financial millstone onto their child's back.

Jenny got into the University of California Berkeley, the University of California San Diego and Sarah Lawrence College, which is a prestigious liberal arts college in New York. Berkeley and UCSD were obviously education bargains, but Jenny, who wants to major in theater, had fallen in love with the idea of attending a small school with all the personalized attention, small classes and other perks that it brings. The problem, however, was Sarah Lawrence offered her a puny financial aid package and my friend wasn't willing to mortgage her retirement for her daughter.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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