It’s not too late. No, you didn’t have to start the financial planning for your children’s college education when they were in diapers. Even if you have a high school senior, there is still a lot you can do.

How do you get your financial house in order? My first suggestion is to invest $16.99 in the brand-new (released Jan. 1) “Right College, Right Price – The New System for Discovering the Best College Fit at the Best Price” by Frank Palmasani (

Palmasani, a veteran guidance and college admissions director, has written a really smart, accessible book on how to successfully navigate the financial side of the college admissions process, from assessing what you can afford to helping you compare costs and analyze award letters.

Parents who are otherwise practical often lose sight of practicality when they begin thinking about their children’s college education. Yes, college is an investment in their future, but creating mountains of debt doesn’t help a student become more independent. The stories are everywhere: a 2010 piece in the New York Times about a 26-year-old New York University student who managed to accumulate $100,000 in student debt or a 2009 graduate of Northeastern University with $200,000 in debt in a 2010 Yahoo Finance article.

Palmasani says there are no “silver bullets,” but there are definitely better ways to plan and smarter decisions to be made. The first step is to figure out exactly what your family can afford to spend on college and identify colleges that fit your pocketbook. You’ll need to understand the financial-fit categories: 1. Flagship state schools; 2. Non-flagship state schools; 3. Flagship state schools out-of-state; 4. Non-flagship state schools out-of-state; 5. Highly selective private schools; 6. Midsize private schools; 7. Traditional private schools; 8. Community colleges and/or commuting options.

There are many misconceptions about financial aid. One of the most common is that the most exclusive colleges cost the most. Don’t assume because the price tags are higher that you can’t afford one. Harvard University has a sticker price of more than $55,000, as do many of the more selective private colleges and universities. But the “Harvard Plan” offers free tuition and free room and board to any student whose family’s income is less than $60,000. Yes, if a student has the goods to be accepted, Harvard picks up the tab entirely. Additionally, if a family’s annual income is between $60,000 and $180,000, the most they’ll be required to pay is 10 percent of their income.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit