It is that time of year again where college applications are in, and the wait, for acceptances and the reality of the final costs, has begun. In the last column I promised to set out some advice to prepare early for the sticker shock of ever increasing college costs.

Two things that appear to be certain are that in the short run, the "list price" of these costs will continue to increase, as will the sticker shock, especially for those families who are not eligible for what I will broadly refer to as need-based aid. We have some friends who were recently thrilled to learn that their daughter was accepted early decision into the University of Rochester. Their income precludes them from any need-based aid, but their daughter did receive less than 10 percent of the $70,108 annual cost of tuition, room and board in merit aide.

Yes, that is in excess of $280,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree. Georgetown University, my alma mater, is now $72,214 annually. Now that’s sticker shock.

As you no doubt have heard, according to Student Loan Hero, about 44 million Americans now owe over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. I don’t know the current percentage, but as of 2014, about 40 percent of the outstanding student loan debt was incurred by graduate students.

Here is some of my personal advice for families to get a head start dealing with future college costs. It is by no means exhaustive, but it is a beginning. It will at least get everyone to focus on some key issues.

First, if you have a for-sure college-bound child by 8th grade, or even before, start filling out the FAFSA forms to see your likely future family contribution, and, then, repeat it annually, before you have to do it for real in senior year. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that can be prepared annually by current and prospective college students (undergraduate and graduate), in the United States, in order to determine their eligibility for student financial aid. By doing this, your family can start planning, and avoiding potential sticker shock.

Second, annually check out the costs, list price and actual average costs that students actually pay, for about a dozen potential colleges that your child may be interested in. Of course that list may change over the years. It will give the family some ideas of the potential costs.

Third, encourage your child to think seriously throughout high school about what they may want to do in life, and look realistically at their likelihood of success in that career. No one wants to discourage anyone’s dream at too early an age, but sometimes it is pretty clear that someone may not be suited for a certain career, or may not really have their heart in it. The child’s career journey can start with internships in high school if there is a focus. If that career is necessarily going to include graduate school, there is that question to answer of whether to spend or borrow less for an undergraduate degree, so that there is room to pay or borrow for graduate school.

Fourth, whether the family and/or the child are going to pay and/or borrow for the education, it might help for everyone to have some realistic idea as to where the student is likely to end up on the bell curve of success for their chosen career. Why not have everyone make an honest basic cost-benefit analysis for what is going to be paid or borrowed?

Fifth, in the freshman year of high school start a continuing conversation about the goal and expectation of graduating on time in college.

Sixth, start early looking at potential scholarships, merit-based aid and your eligibility for free or reduced college opportunities, like in New York state. As we have discussed in this column, there are a lot of even $500 and $1,000 scholarships out there. They can add up.

As I said, this is not an exhaustive list, but it can be a good start.

A final subject, one that we have often discussed in this column: the many reasons that people are moving out of several of the northeastern states, including New York. These include the overall high cost of living, due to things like high income and real estate taxes, utility costs, and gas prices, because of the gas taxes. Here is another interesting reason that was recently reported by, as the number-one financial reason. It is the fear of people who live in the Northeast that they will have to live in debt forever. I wonder if the recent report that New York state’s funded debt is the second highest in the nation has anything to do with that fear among New Yorkers. By the way, that debt amounts to $3,116 per person, three times the national medium.

There is some good news, however: According to an article in, on one survey, New York has moved to number three, from number one in 2015, on the list of states losing residents. It is now behind Illinois and New Jersey.

If your number-one issue in retirement is financial, living in New York state is something that you have to continuously take a serious look at.

In the next columns we will look at the question of whether money can buy you happiness.

John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program. Find his previous weekly columns at or at