Like cars, college has a sticker price and then the price a student actually pays.

That price varies from person to person depending on everything from financial need to whether a student is good at throwing a ball, taking a test or playing the tuba. But unlike cars, families seem less willing to be tough negotiators when it comes to paying for college, relying instead on the belief that college will pay off, no matter how much it costs.

Figuring out the college financing process is needlessly complex. But families can't roll over. They need to take a magnifying glass to college costs before setting foot on campus, not when the loans come due.

"People need to be asking questions of schools that schools don't necessarily want to answer," said Todd Johnson, president of College Admissions Partners in Minnetonka.

For instance?

What percentage of need do you meet? Need is defined as the cost of college minus the expected family contribution calculated using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Everyone should fill out the FAFSA, even if they think they make too much money for aid. The more selective the school, the more likely it is to meet 100 percent of a family's need, said Johnson, naming Carleton, Macalester and St. Olaf as Minnesota schools with the reputation for meeting need. Colleges meet that need through a combination of work-study programs, loans and grants.

What if a college doesn't meet 100 percent of need? It means the family will have to come up with the gap between the aid package and the cost of tuition using resources such as savings, home equity, parent loans or private loans. Or a student will have to get a job.

Johnson says cheaper public schools are less likely to meet 100 percent of student need, which means private schools with hefty price tags can ultimately be a better bargain than a state school with less aid.

Remember, though -- student loans need to be repaid, so pay attention to what proportion of a school's award package is loans and to the terms of those loans.

Johnson also tells families to ask: What does financial aid look like after freshman year? Some schools offer more generous aid in the first year to get students in the door and then reduce the package or rely more on loans in subsequent years. Some schools, such as the College of St. Catherine, sit families down and share this information as a matter of course. At other schools, you may need to ask pointed questions.

Another uncomfortable but important question to ask: How much debt does a typical graduate have? The amount varies greatly. For example, the College of Visual Arts' average class of 2007 graduate had loans to the tune of $46,210, according to the Project on Student Debt; just 10 percent of the class graduated without loans. At Carleton, on the other hand, the average student-loan debt of graduates was $19,185 in 2007, and 45 percent of graduates managed school without loans. Check out for your prospective schools.

"The best way to minimize loan debt is to graduate in four years," said Kris Wright, director of the University of Minnesota's Office of Student Finance. Taking five or six years to complete school increases the cost significantly, from extra tuition dollars to interest that adds up on some loans while in class. Ask a school: What percentage of your students graduates in four years? If the number is low, ask why.

Questions to ask yourself

Part of finding and paying for the right college is asking tough questions beyond how good the food tastes at the cafeteria and whether the dorm rooms are big. For instance, what are your career aspirations?

"If your ambition is to be a nursery-school teacher, which is a very underpaid profession even though it's very valuable from a social point of view, you shouldn't be borrowing $60,000 or $70,000 to go to college because you're never going to make enough money to make it reasonable to pay that back," said Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago and a former president of Macalester College.

A study by student lending giant Sallie Mae found that 70 percent of students and parents did not take expected salary into account when deciding how much to borrow -- a mistake considering growing student debt burdens and this job market. If you want to go into a field that's rewarding but not financially lucrative, however, don't simply head for a community college. Check out new programs for student loan forgiveness and talk to the school about your conundrum.

What if you don't have a clue about your career aspirations?

"Do not borrow one dollar more than you absolutely need to borrow and be realistic about what your payments are going to be," said Michael DeVito, who manages Wells Fargo Education Financial Services. Too many families wait until after school to come up with a game plan for debt repayment.

What if the college you'd love to attend is offering a lousy financial aid package? Proceed with caution.

"If you are contemplating a college which is urging you to really borrow a ton of money in order to go -- you know, suggesting private loans on top of maxing out on the subsidized loan and unsubsidized federally guaranteed loans -- you have to think about whether that's really the right place to go," said McPherson. "You do have to be alert that some colleges may not be giving you good advice and you need to think for yourself."

Remember, college is four years of your life. And they can be amazing years. But you'll typically be paying off your student loans for at least a decade. So make your college choice with your eyes open.

Share your college financing plans with Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or