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Americans of all ages grapple with the cost of higher education, whether it’s trying to save for the future, choosing a college or repaying student loan debt. Tuition and fees at U.S. colleges has increased an average of 5% every year for the last decade, and the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is projected to grow. In the next few weeks, Credit.com will explore several of the answers, opinions and theories out there about why these numbers keep going up.

Choosing the right college involves some serious decisions. Where to attend, how much it will cost, and is it affordable, are usually the first questions that come to mind. Many people tend to base the answers to these questions on the annual tuition information posted by schools, and assume that it will take them four years to obtain a “four-year degree.” But is four the right number? For many students, the answer is no. Studies show it can actually take anywhere from three to six years to complete a college degree. In fact, millions start college and never finish.

“Regardless of where you go, regardless of how you go, far too many of those students are not graduating,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches and advises legislators on higher education policy.

College is expensive for a lot of reasons, but the difficulty in estimating the full cost of an education you may not complete for years can exacerbate the issue of unaffordable higher education.

College-Level Math Problems

For students who enter a four-year college seeking a bachelor’s degree for the first time, only 39% of them graduate within four years of enrolling, according to 2014 data from the National Center of Education Statistics. Among students from low-income households, that graduation rate is only 20%, while 42% of high-income students graduate within four years, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. About 60% of students graduate within six years of starting at a four-year college.

Still, in the last 20 years, more than 31 million students started at an institution of higher education and left before earning a degree or certificate, according to a 2014 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“I think probably too few people take the time to graduation into account, and students and families should absolutely be asking colleges how many of their graduates graduate in four years, versus five years, versus six,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit that operates the Project on Student Debt. “They should definitely use that information in how they’re going to finance their education.”

That’s generally not a simple math problem. Even if you’ve worked out the details of your intended major and its course load, you may not know how much tuition will cost each year of your education, as schools re-evaluate what they’ll charge students on a yearly basis, as part of making a budget for the entire university. Unless, however, you go to a school that locks in tuition rates — where if your first year is, say, $20,000, that’s how much it will be each of the next three years, regardless of what the college decides to charge future incoming students. Otherwise, tuition rates have increased about 5% annually for the past 10 years, so you can use that as a guideline when calculating future costs.

There are also many other unknowns: Will your financial aid situation change from year to year? Will you be able to handle a course load that allows you to graduate on a specific timeline? What would you do if tuition increased more than you planned for? How will you cover unexpected costs?

The answers to these questions could significantly impact your financial situation after college. If you end up borrowing more than you can afford to pay back, and fall behind, it could ultimately affect your credit standing. This, in turn, could impact your ability to do things like rent your own apartment, get a credit card, buy a car or get a mortgage. (You can see how your student loans are impacting your credit by getting your free credit report summary from Credit.com.)

How to Graduate Without Paying More Than Expected

In the last few years, it has become easier to estimate total college costs. Schools are now required to put a net-price calculator on their websites, which estimate a student’s eligibility for financial aid and all expenses associated with getting a degree at that institution, not just tuition and fees.

Additionally, the Department of Education released its Financial Aid Shopping Sheet in 2012 and asked colleges and universities to adopt the sheet as a universal template for financial aid award letters – and as of December 2013, the ED said more than 1,950 schools have adopted the shopping sheet.

Why are those letters so important? They represent the first time students and families see customized college costs, rather than just estimates. However, it’s still not an entirely straightforward process. Because each school does award letters differently, it can make comparing them a challenge.

“Some award letters are clearer than others,” Cochrane said. “Some will only put tuition, some will put net cost, some will separate grants and loans, others will bundle them together, making it hard to figure out how much needs to be repaid.”

Even with improvements, figuring out how much school will cost, how likely you are to finish within a certain timeline, and how much your monthly student loan payments will be requires a lot of research, planning and shopping around for the best education.

Cooper said looking at graduation rates and career resources at a college is crucial to choosing a school that will be affordable in the long run.

“We have to make sure that we’re approaching this from a consumer standpoint, from a wise investment standpoint,” Cooper said. “The government has set up a number of student loan repayment plans, but honestly, graduation rates are more important, because if you don’t graduate, you’re not going to get that job. … It’s good to make sure that the institution not only prepares you for your first job but also prepares you for a lifelong career path.”

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