You got into college; how are you going to pay for it?

Color illustration of hands adjusting mortarboard made from hundred-dollar bills onto back of graduate's head bills. (Rick Nease / Detroit Free Press)
Color illustration of hands adjusting mortarboard made from hundred-dollar bills onto back of graduate's head bills. (Rick Nease / Detroit Free Press)

OAKLAND — High school seniors will rush home in coming weeks to check postal boxes for college acceptance letters.

After that, students and their families will try to determine if they have enough savings, financial aid, loans and scholarships to make their college wishes come true.

Financing college is no small task, but financial-aid directors say money concerns should not discourage students from attending the college of their choice. Financial aid is offered to the majority of students at most colleges.

The key is to plan ahead by four or five years, financial-aid directors say.

"Start planning when your child is in about eighth grade," said David Gin, director of financial assistance at Mills College in Oakland.

But lots of other things need planning, too, for the student to be eligible for all the financial-aid plans available.

The student must take the right high school courses to qualify for certain financial aid, such as the Cal Grant — which offers up to $9,700 per year that doesn't have to be repaid — and to get into certain schools. A clear assessment of family savings and income is also needed, so Gin advises clearing up any unsettled issues that muddy the water.

"I see more and more families not prepared with the paperwork of life," he said, including those who are carrying a lot of debt even though they could have paid it off, or those who leave divorce proceedings unfinished.

Stanford University financial-aid director Karen Cooper said parents can expand their child's field of college choices if they take the time to understand financial aid and how it works.

"One of our concerns in this process is we think there are students out there who are academically prepared for places like Stanford and who could be very competitive students, but whose families are making decisions that they shouldn't even look at Stanford because of the sticker price," she said. "Stanford can be very affordable."

Stanford announced earlier this year that it will give free tuition and room and board to accepted students whose families make less than $60,000 a year. And it will offer discounted tuition to families earning less than $100,000 a year.

Stanford tuition is $36,030 annually, plus $11,182 for room and board, for a total annual cost of $47,212 — but 42 percent of its undergraduates receive some type of financial aid.

Most private colleges give generous subsidies to their students, grants and loans taken from college endowments, financial-aid officials said.

Schools including Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Mills College in Oakland and Santa Clara University all provide financial assistance to more than 70 percent of their students. It's a good thing — tuition at all three tops $30,000 a year. But to get a sense of what's available, the average financial-aid package at Saint Mary's is $25,148 — about three quarters the cost of its tuition of $31,000 a year.

The University of California system subsidizes students by charging a much lower fees — about a fourth of what private colleges charge — and also offering need-based financial aid. Annual fees at University of California campuses are $6,636 this year, not including housing costs.

Annual base fees at California State University campuses are $2,772 this year.