Affording college is no small matter, especially during these difficult economic times. Even during the best of times, the cost of college can be a strain on a family's budget. The challenges are even more apparent as jobless numbers grow and the value of our investments shrink.

However, here's the good news: A college education is affordable! The recent federal stimulus package included substantial increases to financial aid programs that help students and families pay for college. Among the 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, there's an opportunity for you, whether it be at a technical or community college, a public university or a private university such as Viterbo University. Viterbo has identified "access, affordability and student success" as one of our institutional priorities. We are pleased that our freshmen applications and deposits for next fall are double-digit ahead of last year - evidence that our students and families are finding us an affordable option.

The promise of a rewarding career, less vulnerability to unemployment and more earning potential suggests a college education should be viewed as an investment and not just an expense. But there are ways to stretch the budget and make college more affordable, and I offer these tips to prospective students and families:

Complete a FAFSA

The acronym stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. About two-thirds of all full-time undergraduate students receive financial aid. At Viterbo, that figure is 99 percent. An FAFSA application (www.fafsa.com) is required to be considered for federal and state aid, and in many cases, institutional aid that is merit- or need-based. Place this at the top of your "to do" list, and file online; you'll save three to four weeks of processing time. Grants, scholarships, campus jobs and loans will dramatically reduce your cost.

Look at net price, not sticker price

What really is the cost to attend a particular college? Add up tuition, mandatory fees (be careful to check on these, they can be substantial), textbooks, room and board (if living on campus) and miscellaneous costs. Each college will outline a projected budget for you. Then subtract what the university of your choice will offer in financial aid and that's the net price to attend. In 2008-09, the College Board reports that aid in the form of grants and tax benefits averaged about $2,300 per student at public two-year colleges, about $3,700 at public four-year colleges and about $10,200 per student at private four-year colleges, so don't eliminate any of your college options-public or private-until you tally up final costs. Best Web sites: http://collegeboard.com">collegeboard.com, http://UCan-network.org">UCan-network.org, studentaccess@waicu.org.

Don't be afraid of loans

Remember, your education is an investment that will yield long-term income benefits. Borrow only what is absolutely needed, and start with the federal loan programs. Your lending institution or financial aid office will have details on various student and parent loan programs. These loans have favorable interest rates and the repayments are deferred while you remain a student. Paybacks on principle and interest take place after college when you have a paycheck coming in, and you typically have 10 years to pay off the loans.

Finish in four, maybe less

Many universities, Viterbo included, charge a flat tuition rate for full-time studies. You pay the same tuition whether you enroll for 12 (minimum) or more credits. At Viterbo, a student can take 18 credits for the same price as 12. A bachelor's degree requiring 120 credits means you need to earn 30 credits a year to graduate in four years. If you average 18 credits a semester, it's possible to graduate in three years.

A fair number of colleges have special accelerated programs that offer the prospect of early graduation. Viterbo recently introduced a "Degree in 3" program for select science majors. These programs, which save time and money, aren't for everyone, but they are a great option if the fit is right.

Live at home, stay in-state

To be sure, part of the college experience is living away from home. However, the national average room and board cost for two semesters is about $8,000. (At Viterbo it is considerably less.) If you choose to live on campus, check out the options. Living choices and meal plan options are priced according to amenities and the number of meals you'll eat. In the long run, the cost of a full meal plan will be cheaper than eating fast food several times a week. Some universities provide grants/scholarships for living on campus.

Most states provide grants to assist in-state students attending private institutions within the state. For example, the Wisconsin Tuition Grant can award up to $2,900 in aid.

Yes, even the IRS can help

Congress has created very favorable tax incentives which you will find on your 1040. Start by looking at the Hope and Lifelong Learning Tax Credits. Taxpayers within the specified income guidelines are eligible for thousands of dollars in credits at the time of filing. Consult your financial advisor for details.

Rick Artman is president of Viterbo University.

A few quick tips

Park it - If living on campus, leave your car behind and save on gas and insurance.

Consider the military - ROTC programs offer full tuition and room-and-board scholarships and monthly stipends. GI benefits have also been generously expanded.

Entertainment - Save by attending athletic events, movies, plays, concerts and other campus events - these are often provided through your student activity fee or discounted.

Buy used books - On average, a book budget will run about $850 a year. Check out the bookstore early for used editions, or shop at your college's online bookstore or on commercial Web sites.

Hit the books - If you have a few more years in high school, take college prep courses, work hard, earn good grades, and position yourself for the many scholarship opportunities colleges have to offer.

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