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Can You Afford the College of Your Dreams?

Abby Hayes

So you're a high school senior getting ready to make that all-important college choice. You want a great education and a memorable college experience. But you want to avoid today's average student loan debt of nearly $30,000.

So how do you figure out if you can afford the school of your dreams?

Well, it's definitely not about a college's sticker price. In fact, a school's actual cost of attendance has little to do with whether or not it will be affordable for you. Instead, look at these factors to determine if you can afford your dream school:

1. Financial aid packages

Some of the highest-priced colleges also have the best financial aid packages. Take Princeton University, for instance. The estimated cost of attendance at this prestigious university is $58,965 for the 2014-2015 school year. But because of the school's no-loan financial aid policy (aid packages rely on grants instead of loans), only a quarter of Princeton students graduate with $5,000 of debt. The rest graduate debt-free.

Of course, financial aid this fabulous isn't a reality for all high-priced universities. But if a school is on your dream list, go ahead and apply. Even if the sticker price is out of this world, you may be surprised by the grants and scholarships available.

2. Flexible degree tracks

Over half of college students change majors at least once -- if not multiple times, according to the College Board. And at many universities, each change results in major time tacked on to your college career.

You may avoid this by choosing a college that offers a more flexible degree track. For instance, many liberal arts colleges require a large number of lower-level classes for all degree tracks. These classes may seem like a waste of time, but they actually buy you time to decide what you really want to study.

And if you do decide to change majors, these classes will still count toward your degree, so you don't have to do much backtracking.

3. No gap year penalties

Gap years have long been popular in Europe, but they're starting to catch on in the U.S. Basically, this is a year between high school and college during which you get a job, volunteer, travel or otherwise take a break from school to experience "real life."

If you're unsure of your major, a gap year could save you money over the long term. It also gives you time to explore your interests so that when you start college, you can buckle down and finish your major quickly.

Some universities are now convinced of the value of a gap year and are even paying for students to take one. At Tufts University, a new program called Tufts 1+4 allows incoming students to take a service-oriented gap year in the U.S. or abroad, and the school will cover the costs of housing and airfare.

But other universities penalize students who don't enroll straight from high school by making it harder for them to get grants and scholarships. So talk to the financial aid officer at your dream school. If you think a gap year would benefit your future academic career, speak up. Then ask how taking that gap year would affect your financial aid options with that school.

4. Low cost of living

Students don't think much about the cost of living at their college of choice. After all, if you're living in the dorms and eating on a meal plan, the price of rent and milk in the area doesn't make a difference, right?

But what if you decide to live off campus as an upperclassman? Will you be able to afford the cost of living?

While cost of living shouldn't be the determining factor in your school choice, you should at least look at it. If you're torn between a school in an expensive city and one in a more affordable area, this consideration could be a money-saving tiebreaker.

Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.

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