A college degree is a valuable asset, a necessary although not sufficient condition for getting the kind of job and career that offers intriguing opportunities as well as decent pay and benefits.

That said, the word "college" is fraught with controversy these days (even before the pandemic forced so many colleges to shift to online classes). The spiraling price tag of attending college has spawned a cottage industry of critics arguing that the diploma isn't worth the time and cost. Parents are confused and frustrated by the convoluted financial aid system and price discounting by (mostly) private liberal arts colleges. A majority of students graduate with on average more than $30,000 in student loans.

The process of smartly choosing a college is daunting, while answers to basic questions is elusive. "What is the degree from any particular college worth? When is the extra $50,000 or $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 for one school vs. another worth it? What is the return on investment going to be?" asks author Ron Lieber in "The Price You Pay for College."

Read Lieber's book, for one (available on Jan. 26). The New York Times personal-finance columnist and parent brings clarity to a murky process and often incendiary topic. He sensibly writes about several important controversies without losing sight that this is a practical book aimed at helping those looking to figure which four-year private or public residential undergraduate experience is best for their child and at what price tag.

Lieber's chapter on why college is so expensive gives a valuable account of the rise in merit aid and tuition discounting by (mostly) private liberal arts colleges. Not surprisingly, the personal-finance advice is smart. For example, I like his approach toward saving for college. Saving is hard, kids are expensive, and the unexpected upends even well-thought-out plans (think the pandemic). "Do what you can and don't feel guilty if you can't do more" is a workable mantra. However, what stood out is how he dealt with topics such as mental health on campus, including suggesting questions parents should ask college administrators about their approach.

Planning and savings pays. So does knowing how the system works. "[F]iguring out what to pay for college is about acknowledging your feelings, airing them, and then bringing them to heel," Lieber advises. How much money to spend on college is enough for your child? To answer, grasp the college system dynamics, understand your emotions, and pay attention to your child.

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for "Marketplace" and Minnesota Public Radio.