New graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Obtaining a college degree has increasingly coincided with ever-higher student debt loads. Since 2004, total student debt has climbed more than 540 percent to $1.4 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve.

Before you apply (or quit), how much does a college degree really cost?

This fall's class of college freshman may have conquered algebra, but this is still a good equation to solve: If a student pays x to attend college, and a graduate makes y, how much did college really cost?

If the October 2017 study released by the U.S. Department of Education is any indicator, a short answer for many is "too much." The report predicted a looming student debt crisis. Published by the Brookings Institution, the report cited federal data indicating default rates continue to rise between 12 to 20 years after students begin repaying their loans and concluded nearly 40 percent of students who took out loans in 2004 may default by 2023.

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Today's raw numbers are also imposing. Balanced against even the most popular jobs for 2018 college graduates or high-earning jobs that require only a couple years of junior college study, the base cost for college attendance is pricey.

According to the College Board's College Cost Calculator, for example, the average price of one year of private college is $42,224 in today's dollars. Adjusted for a start date of five years for now (assuming about 5 percent annual increase), the cost of four years would be $232,271.

But discerning potential students and their parents should rely on their own figures, according to Kiplinger, which noted that few students actually pay the "sticker price" published by most colleges, and financial aid letters don't detail how college costs typically shift over four years of attendance.

To figure out a personal financial scenario, the College Data website advised students and their parents to evaluate these figures:

Tuition: What the college charges for instruction. "Colleges charge tuition by the units that make up an academic year, such as a semester or quarter," CD noted. "Tuition at public colleges is often a bargain for state residents, but not for out-of-staters, who often pay double the tuition of residents." Note that tuition might also vary by major, particularly for students in the sciences, engineering, computing or premed.

Fees: This is what a college charges for services that may include the library, campus transportation, student government and athletic facilities. They are rarely optional. In various college cost compilations, colleges often report a combined tuition and fees figure. According to College Board, the average tuition and fees combination for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges and $25,620 for out-of-state residents who attend public universities.

Housing and meals: Also described as "room and board," this line item depends on which campus housing and food plans you choose. College Board reported a range of average room and board in 2017–2018 from $10,800 at four-year public schools to $12,210 at private schools. Schools typically provide an estimated cost of living off campus at schools where that is allowed.

Books and school supplies: Based on college cost estimates for required learning materials (sometimes including the cost of purchasing an appropriate computer), College Board reported the average cost for books and supplies for the 2017–2018 school year was $1,250 at public colleges and $1,220 at private colleges.

Personal and transportation expenses: Colleges may also provide estimates for attendance-related expenses that will never show up on bills that come directly from the school. These costs include local transportation, clothing, personal items, entertainment and so forth. The College Board reported expenses in this category for 2017–2018 ran from $2,730 at private colleges to $3,270 at public universities.

Know your net price

While the sheer numbers can overwhelm a potential college student, it pays to do more number crunching before selecting a school or deciding college is too expensive, College Data noted.

The key factor is determining your "net" price versus a school's published "sticker price."

Sticker price is the amount students pay without any financial aid at all. "Net price is your real cost to attend - the amount you pay out-of-pocket after financial aid is deducted," CD added.

College Data's Net Price calculator looks at the college's cost of attendance, your financial aid eligibility and recent financial aid awards at the college to estimate an individual's net price.

"Two colleges may have vastly different sticker prices, but your net price to attend both may be similar. In fact, your net price may be lower at the college with the higher sticker price!" it noted.

To arrive at the truth of what your actual college cost will be, you also need to understand a few more terms, as outlined below:

Expected family contribution, or EFC, is the amount the federal government determines you and your family are able to pay for the upcoming year of college. They base your individual figure on the information you provide in your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Financial need is determined by the college you are looking at. It computes this number by subtracting a student (and the student's family's) EFC from the college's official cost of attendance (COA).

Just because a college notes that you have a certain financial need doesn't mean that the school will be prepared to meet it. "The sad truth is that most colleges don't have the financial resources to fully meet the need of every student," CD noted.

Financial aid may not reduce college cost in all cases. Most financial aid awards are a combination of "gift aid," which includes "no cost to you" scholarships and grants, and "self-help aid," which includes loans you must pay back and work-study that pays only after you find a position and put in the hours.

Your true out-of-pocket cost, or "net price," comes from three sources: your EFC, self-help aid and unmet financial need. Stated another way, you pay for all college costs not covered by gift aid.

To determine which school offer will cost the least in final attendance costs, determine the net price for each. Sometimes a school that is literally thousands more based on "sticker price" will cost less when you subtract how much gift aid they are willing to pay out.

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