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Can't afford college? Call an advisor

It's no secret that college costs continue to rise, pricing more and more families out of their top choice of schools.

According to College Board, one year at an average private college costs $40,917 for tuition, fees, room and board for the 2013-14 school year—3.7 percent more than the year before. The cost of a state four-year school rose to $18,391 a year, on average, 3.2 percent more than the year before. At elite private colleges, the tab can run in excess of $60,000.


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To help clients save for college when their kids are young, many financial advisors set up 529 college investment plans. But others take it to another level, working with families through the entire college application process—selecting appropriate schools, fine-tuning the college application packet and then weeding through offers.

Such late-stage college-planning strategies could chip away at the actual cost of college by 25 percent or more, said Deborah Fox, CEO and founder of Fox Financial Planning Network and Fox College Funding.

"When you layer these strategies one on top of another, you are talking about very significant savings," she said.

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When Fox first started her financial planning practice in 1998, she focused on college funding as a niche, because so many of her clients were worried about this escalating expense.

"Focusing on the financial outcome of college was really important, so we were coming up with direct strategies to reduce the cost," she said.

Eventually, people were approaching Fox to work solely on college funding, so she spun out Fox College Funding into a stand-alone firm.

Services like Fox's are gaining traction because many families are at a loss about how to keep up with college costs. Since the economic crisis, there's been a reduction in the amount that parents contribute to their children's college educations. On average, families contributed 36 percent of such costs in 2013, down from 47 percent in 2010, relying more on grants, scholarships and loans to fill in the gap.

That's where consulting with a college-funding specialist can make a big impact.

"Every family of a high school student, at least the first time through, has no idea how the process works," said John Buerger, a certified financial planner with Altus Wealth Solutions, which also provides stand-alone college-funding services.

Buerger himself certainly didn't know what to expect six years ago, when his son was a high school freshman and he started looking into the most cost-effective way to send him to college. Based on what he learned, he started offering college-funding planning to his financial planning clients as an added service.

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Buerger prefers to start working with parents when their children are in ninth grade, which is when he started preparing his own son for the college process. "That's when I talk to them about focusing on good grades and their community service," he said. "Because those are going to be the basis of their merit aid."

Based on the student's academic record and test results, advisors say there is still time to make recommendations on test preparation and to add extracurricular activities that will appeal to the admissions committee.

Todd Weaver, a former financial aid officer at Northeastern University and senior associate of Strategies for College, says the ideal time to take standardized college admissions tests is after sophomore year, because the math portion is based on material learned in the 10th grade. Strategies for College assists families with college funding and also trains financial advisors in strategies to help families garner the most financial aid from colleges.

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Advisors recommend that students start putting together a list of 20 or so preferred schools to which they are considering applying during the summer between sophomore and junior year and then try to visit as many of them as possible over the next year.

"We give the family feedback on … the likelihood of the student even getting into that school and then … the likelihood of the student getting aid," Fox said. She wants students to focus on schools where they are likely to be in the top quarter or third of the incoming class, because that's where their best shot is of getting merit-based aid.

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For that reason, Fox has hired a former college admissions officer to work on making these assessments. In the end, students should apply to between six and eight colleges.

While families are compiling a list of possible schools, said financial planner Brad Baldridge, founder of Baldridge Wealth Management, they should not write off top-flight schools just because of price.

For instance, in the Wisconsin area where Baldridge is located, families often debate between the University of Chicago—with a total cost of attendance of $63,000 a year—and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which comes in at $24,000 a year.

"The University of Chicago provides a whole lot of needs-based aid and very little merit aid," Baldridge said. "If your family has a high need, they might provide a $40,000 scholarship, and now your net is $25,000—just like Madison."

"The average family is getting penalized for something that their neighbors might know about, so our service helps to level the playing field." -Todd Weaver, senior associate at Strategies for College

Advisors also get involved when it comes time to apply. Buerger reviews applications to make sure they are filled in properly. "You don't want [the college admissions office] disqualifying you because the application isn't filled in correctly," he said.

Buerger also looks through essays and, if more help is needed, recommends applicants consult with a writing tutor. "I had one girl whom I made revise her essay about 20 times," he said. "She was so sick of it, but she got into her top choice."

The essay, advisors stress, is the student's chance to demonstrate his or her unique qualities, and it plays a crucial role in convincing financial aid offices of whether the student is, in fact, deserving of aid.

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Even after the offers come in, the advisor's work isn't yet done. Families need help evaluating the aid packages.

"I have a whole spreadsheet where I put in the offers so we can compare them, apples to apples," Weaver said. He coaches students on how to negotiate with financial aid offices to ask for additional money, insisting that it's important that students do it themselves.

College-funding advisors charge between $1,200 and $5,000, depending on the level of service, but they insist such fees are more than made up by the cost savings.

"Colleges aren't giving a lot of information to the students on financial aid," Weaver said. "The average family is getting penalized for something that their neighbors might know about, so our service helps to level the playing field."

—By Ilana Polyak, special to CNBC.com

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