Colleges and financial aid programs are presenting families with a variety of different numbers that can make the decision-making process confusing and complicated, Ruth Simon writes. To help cut that confusion, Simon recommends several strategies, including focusing on net price -- the total cost of college rather than just tuition -- looking at schools' success rates, and setting price parameters early in the search process. "If there is no way the financials are going to work, why have the student go through the exercise of having to apply?" San Diego financial planner Deborah Fox says.

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