The cost of college can be a lot like fares on a commercial airline.
Ask the people to your right and left what they paid, and the answers can vary dramatically.
Likewise, two families sending children to the same college can pay dramatically different amounts - both in terms of the total they pay to the college and how much they pay each year.
The difference is in financial aid. And with private college tuitions averaging $12,000 a year - reaching $30,000 at the top end - even committed savers need help.
Half of all college students receive a slice of the aid pie - $55 billion last year - and much of it is available simply for the asking.
The key is to start planning now. For parents of this year's high school seniors, this time of year determines how much aid you will receive.
Most financial-aid offers arrive with admission acceptances in late March or early April.
But if you have a high school junior, this is the year that determines how much aid you will be eligible to receive 12 months from now.
For seniors, there's still time to apply to the thousands of private scholarship sources, many with spring and summer deadlines.
If you haven't submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) - which can be filed starting Jan. 1 - crank up the pencil. Schools generally grant aid first-come, first-served, and this form becomes the basis for most of it.
This document produces a crucial number, your "expected family contribution," the amount the government thinks you can afford to pay for college.
The college subtracts that number from the total cost of enrollment (tuition, living, books) and decides whether to subsidize part of the remainder.
That's why this year is crucial for parents of high school juniors.
Your after-tax income this year determines how much aid you will likely be eligible for next year.
And less is more. The less you earn now, the more aid you can receive. So this becomes a good year to defer bonuses or pay increases and take tax deductions.
It's also a great time to start a business. "What better time to have losses than during the tax years that affect aid?" says Kalman Chany, author of "How to Pay for College Without Going Broke."
Mr. Chany even urges parents to start a financial-aid strategy as soon as a student enters high school. Decisions made years before can affect the outcome.
Saving in your child's name, for example, offers tax advantages but can become a liability when you line up for aid.
As much as 5.65 percent of assets in the parents' name are expected to go toward college. But 35 percent of a child's savings get tapped for college.
Still, if you're certain not to qualify for aid, saving in your child's name makes sense. The dilemma is knowing if you'll be eligible, since rules may change.
Another option is for parents to return to school just before their child enters college. The "family contribution" is divided by the number of people in school. So you can nearly double your aid eligibility this way.
Many private colleges, however, consider only the number of dependents in school when distributing their own funds.
Timing aside, virtually every family can receive a low-rate Stafford loan ($2,625 a year for freshmen and sophomores, $5,500 for juniors and seniors), and a PLUS loan, which covers the total college cost. (Apply at your local bank or credit union.) They don't lessen the load, but they do spread it out.
On the issue of outright aid, many parents - especially those with incomes of $80,000 to $110,000 - mistakenly assume they are not eligible. But unusual expenses, such as care for an elderly relative, can tilt the scales toward you, and sheer persistence often pays off, as well.
High-income families most often get help from higher-priced private schools or when sending more than one child to college at the same time.
At many public universities, "a relatively small family with an income over $60,000 probably will only qualify for unsubsidized Stafford loans," says Karen Fooks, director of financial aid at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
But, she emphasizes, "you certainly lose nothing but time by applying."
"Time" becomes a key word. The process takes hours, sometimes days, and "those who are knowledgeable about the process do much better," says Chany. "It's a second job, but the pay's not so bad." If 10 hours of work brings $1,000 in aid, that's like getting $100 an hour tax-free.
Aiding the Aid Quest
Internet sites now add to the cornucopia of books on financial aid. But surfer beware. Some online calculators of aid eligibility are too simplistic. If they don't include all the formulas or fail to ask enough questions, results can be way off.
The Financial Aid Information Page, sponsored by aid administrators, offers links to many other sites, including scam alerts, scholarship databases, and cost calculators.
Billed as the "Internet's largest free scholarship search" service, Fastweb includes more than 275,000 listings. Fill out a lengthy questionnaire, and the site looks for matching scholarships.
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid online at this Department of Education site.
Sallie Mae is a government-sponsored corporation that services college loans. This site offers an interactive tutorial - Financial Aid 101. A "college answer" service answers questions about eligibility or filling out forms.
Peterson's College Money Handbook
Outlines aid offerings at 1,700 colleges and universities. One chart compares each school's average aid package for freshmen. Comes with software (for computers running Windows) that helps estimate costs and payment options.
Paying for College Without Going Broke
By Kalman Chany Princeton Review/Random House, $18
Includes tips on filling out forms and planning strategy.
"Scholarship Advisor 1998"
By Chris Vuturo Princeton Review/Random House, $23
A catalog of scholarships, plus advice on getting one.