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Can you afford college?: Here's what you need to know

Affordability plays a huge role in whether or not students attend college. Here are tips from experts on how you can tackle the topic.

College is expensive. One of the biggest questions for parents and students alike is, “Can I afford it?” In some cases, affordability plays a huge role in whether or not students attend school, sometimes even after they enroll. According to Sallie Mae’s 2016 study, “How America Pays for College,” 67% of families considered the price of a school when narrowing their decision and 40% of students ended up not attending a school they enrolled in because of financial reasons.

We spoke to student financial aid experts Mark Kantrowitz, Brendan Williams, Dr. Shari Sevier and Don Strand to get their take on the big question of college affordability.

Find the net price

To tell how affordable a college is, first you need to determine the net price. The net price is the amount of money a student pays to attend a school after subtracting scholarships and grants -- also known as gift aid -- from the sticker price.

You can also use the Department of Education’s net price calculator online. Once you have the net price, calculate the cost for the number of years your student plans on being in school, and then compare it to your available resources. You want to compare colleges based on the net price and choose the best one based on your criteria. If the total net price of tuition is greater than your total resources then there is a high possibility that your child can’t afford to attend the college or university without taking on debt. If the total net price is less than your total resources then you can pay for it without needing a loan.

You can also try using the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. It’s a resource that allows families to calculate the tuitions costs, get an idea of the average debt students’ graduate with, the graduation and retention rates at a specific school, and more.

Consider reasonable debt

Mark Kantrowitz defines reasonable debt as the amount of student loan debt that a student can afford to repay after graduation based on their annual income.

He says that the rule of thumb is, “If your total amount of debt is less than your annual starting salary, then you can afford to repay your student loans in 10-years or less.” It involves a simple comparison: What will be your amount of debt at graduation [multiply one year of debt by the number of years you’re in school] and what is your expected income in a job in your desired field.

Borrow smart

Many families, two-thirds to be exact, borrow money to finance their student’s college career according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

While borrowing money is an option many families take, it could hurt you. Taking out excessive amounts of money to finance education can have a lasting impact on college graduates. To date, Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve.

If you have to borrow, Kantrowitz encourages families to “budget before you borrow.” When you have an idea of how much you need, it helps you avoid borrowing too much money. Get a sense of the net price, identify any potential scholarship offers, calculate what you can afford to pay out of pocket, then try to find loans to cover whatever else you need

Brendan Williams says the key is exploring all of your options when looking for lenders. “Make sure you understand what each lender is offering, know what the interest rates are, and compare them.” Comparing loans such as federal and private loans with your student will allow them to see what their education will cost.

Williams also urges families to stay away from thinking traps, like “We can make this work.” Students and families should explore financial resources like scholarships and payment plans to avoid large amounts of debt. A payment plan is an alternative way to pay for school, in smaller installments to a school directly or through a lender. You arrange an agreement to pay monthly for tuition and fees, as opposed to paying the full amount upfront.

Factor in Your Major

Consider what you want to major in. If you do not anticipate making a lot of money after you graduate, then consider attending a less expensive college in your field so you won’t incur as much debt.

Don Strand says that a harsh reality is that, “your passion can have you strangled by debt.” He says that there is a difference between debt and a debt investment. While many students view educational loans as investments, Strand encourages families to consider the dangers of high debt because, “it can create financial struggle for years and years.”

While college graduates earn about $28,000 more annually than their peers with high school diplomas, according to the Pew Research Center what students major in while in-college makes a difference in what they earn in their field after they graduate.

Dr. Shari Sevier, advocacy director for the Missouri School Counselor Association, says that it is important for students to know that money shouldn’t be a deterrent from attending a good school or fulfilling their dreams. “We don't want money to be the reason people go into various fields; rarely does that turn out well. Still, if you major in something that's like a needle in a haystack, you need to face the reality that jobs may be hard to come by.”

With that being said, it is also helpful to sort through your options for continuing education. Strand says it’s important to keep your options open for other higher education pathways when considering affordability. Community colleges and career training programs are alternatives to high-priced four-year schools. Strand says that taking general classes at community colleges can be a great way to get your education without taking on more debt than you can afford. “I always tell the kids that college is only time in life that they will get free money. Some community colleges like City College of San Francisco are now free.”

Going to college is about expanding your horizons. Although the question of whether or not you can afford college is tough to answer, you’ll find it helpful to weigh all of your options. With the right information, preparation and support college your family can explore ways to make continuing education more affordable. Remember: affordability does not have to limit your dreams.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Strategy,, Sharon Sevier, Advocacy Director, Missouri School Counselor Association and Brendan Williams, Director of Knowledge, uAspire.