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My oldest hits high school next year, and my worrywart Aunt Azelda is pestering me about his college plans. I suppose a little planning wouldn’t hurt, so I rang up San Diego’s Lynn O’Shaughnessy of the College Solution (619-461-0241; thecollegesolutionblog.com).

O’Shaughnessy got into the college game first while planning for her daughter’s future and then for her carpool group, which, she says, were “kind of lower middle-class. My son’s best friend went to High Tech High, and he got into Carleton College in Minnesota. It’s a $53,000-a-year school, and he’s paying about $7000 a year. If he’d gone to a state school like Berkeley or UCLA, he would have paid far more than that. For some lower-income or middle-income kids, private schools that offer financial aid can be cheaper...and for affluent families who aren’t going to get a dime from the state schools here. It doesn’t take much: if you make more than $80,200 and you’re a family of four, you’re not getting a Cal grant, and you will pay full price.”

Carleton is a liberal-arts college, as opposed to a university. “For undergraduates, I think liberal-arts colleges are superior to universities. There are no graduate students, and the professors’ focus is teaching. At a university, the professors’ focus is research and graduate programs. The undergraduates tend to be taught by graduate students.”

O’Shaughnessy went professional because, she says, “Not many people know this stuff. The main source that people have for their college information is a high school guidance counselor. But those people are not trained to know this — their degrees have nothing to do with college planning. Most of them wouldn’t know who gets Cal grants or how to evaluate whether a private school is going to cost less for a child than a public school. They don’t know much about the thousands of schools out there, and they’re doing a disservice to the kids.”

O’Shaughnessy said that the first step is to determine your “expected family contribution.” “That’s the minimum you will be expected to pay for one year of college. You can find it at tuitioncoach.com. For families that have a high EFC, you should look for schools that give merit money to rich kids. If you have a low EFC, you want to look for schools that are generous to low-income or middle-income kids. An example is Pomona College, a phenomenal liberal-arts school. If you get in, and you’re a low-income or middle-income kid, it’s like hitting the educational lottery because they’ll meet 100 percent of your needs. But if you’re a wealthy kid from Torrey Pines, you will pay over $50,000 a year because they don’t give money to wealthy kids. Sticker price is meaningless. You need to know both your EFC and the policy of the school to which you are applying.”

How to determine? “It’s in my workbook [$14.95 for electronic download; $24.95 for shipped hardback]. It takes families step-by-step through what they need to know: where the money is, how to evaluate the generosity of a school, and the issue of whether saving for college hurts your chances for financial aid.”

Michelle Mai of College Planning Source in Rancho Bernardo (858-676-0700; collegeplanningsource.com) also provides advice. “Our service runs everywhere from a student-planning program, to an application program, to application and funding, to application and admissions, to sports recruiting. Our fee is $100 an hour, and our packages run from $295 to $3700.”

The planning program begins with the individual student. “Sophomore year is a good time to start. We have students take an assessment to understand their abilities, interests, and values. Then we try to expose them to occupations that might fit their abilities. Then we look at majors that would help to prepare them and how long it would take them to prepare.”

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