Computer service shows a family how to take the costs of college in stride

Jerrold Gibson sits in his office on the third floor of what was a house but is now full of computer terminals. Just a few miles down the road is Harvard University, where for 10 years he was director of fiscal services.

''I saw a lot of parents who felt they were missing something they should know about paying for college,'' says Mr. Gibson, ''and we did refer them to books. But usually they'd get to Page 20 or so and say, 'But who can help me understand all this?' ''

Gibson thinks he can.

After years of helping Harvard families figure out how to pay for their children's education and time spent in Washington advising on financial aid policy, Gibson is putting the finishing touches on a service that he says will make the task of understanding how to pay for college simpler and more comprehensible. For a small investment of time and money, a family will get a clear idea of just how much it will cost to educate all their children, how much they can afford, and what their financing options are.

The service, called Pacesetter, takes a family's detailed financial and personal information - income, savings, stocks, number of children, the cost of schools they are attending or hope to attend - and puts it through a computer program. The product is a loose-leaf binder with computer printouts that show everything from projected loan indebtedness to tax savings, along with printed material on financial aid options.

Parents will have a clear picture of what they can expect to pay from loans, savings, or other sources and what their children can be expected to contribute. The program is also not bashful about telling a family when their financial resources are not sufficient to meet anticipated costs unless deeper sacrifices are made. The cost of the service is $95, which includes five computer reruns over the ensuing year if the family chooses to investigate a different financial or college scenario.

Gibson says some families may wonder how Pacesetter can help them if they feel they already have a grasp on their financial picture. ''Very few families realize how many financing options they have, or which ones should be used first for their best benefit,'' he says. ''For most, the thought of getting several kids through college is staggering, but we think we can show them how it can be done.''

Gibson estimates that Pacesetter will be useful to families with incomes beginning in the $12,000-to-$15,000 range.

Experts on financing college education say they expect to see a good number of services such as Pacesetter popping up over the next few years, as families accept the idea that college education, like a new car or a house, must be financed.

''Obviously, such services will be of varying quality,'' says Katherine Hanson, executive director of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. But she gives Pacesetter high marks.

The Pacesetter College Financing Plan, PO Box 79, Belmont, Mass. 02178.

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