Home mortgage rates may be down, but college tuition increases are soaring off the charts. And it's not just the Ivy League that's spiraling out of a student's grasp, it's also the state school that students and parents have always looked to as an affordable backup. Last year, according to the College Board's annual tuition survey figures, the average cost of a college degree (tuition, fees, room and board) at a public four-year college was almost $38,000, while a private college could set you back a staggering $100,000.

In a report issued this winter on college affordability, the San Jose, Calif.—based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education notes that 16 states have increased tuition and mandatory fees by more than 10% at their public four-year colleges and universities. (Massachusetts led with 24%, followed by Missouri, Iowa and Texas at 20 % and North Carolina at 19%.)

It's not surprising that these increases would impact publishers not just of college guides, but of test prep guides and study aids used by students years away from making a college choice but still feeling the pressure to make the test scores and grades that will land them a spot—and hopefully financial aid—at the college of their choice.

"We knew last fall," says Princeton Review publisher Tom Russell, "that it would be important to address this issue, but last October, when the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled 'New Hot Colleges: Anyplace Cheap,' it cemented our view that families at all income levels needed information and help. Many families think that financial aid is an inflexible bureaucracy and they need to know how to approach the bargaining process." Coming in October from Random House/Princeton Review is the updated 14th edition of Paying for College Without Going Broke, and next March will bring America's Best Value Colleges—a guide to 77 colleges that offer a combination of strong academics, reasonable tuition and generous financial aid.

"Let's be honest," says Diane Steele, publisher of the Consumer Dummies Division of Wiley, "how many of us started saving for our children's college the day after we got married?" Published last month, Free $ for College for Dummies by David Rosen and Caryn Mladen, says Steele, "teaches you how to behave as a consumer when looking for a college or financial aid package. It's very liberating to understand that you shouldn't constrain your search with notions about what you can afford, and that success in getting money for college is not based solely on academic achievement." For those who still have time to save and invest, there's 529 & Other College Savings Plans for Dummies by Margaret Munro (Dec.), and the second edition of Richard A. Feigenbaum and David J. Morton's The 529 Savings Plan: The New Way to Fund Higher Education (Sourcebooks, Dec.) (The 529 notation refers to the savings plan that provides tax relief for money set aside for college.) Tom Vanderberg, editor of Database Publications at the College Board, reports an increase in sales for all the company's college and test prep guides and says, "It's a shame when kids don't apply to colleges they would love to attend, because they are scared off by the 'sticker price'—when the real price can be much less after all financial aid options are applied." Just now hitting the bookstores (for those intent on hitting the books) are The College Board College Cost and Financial Aid Handbook 2004, which shows financial aid history and complete, itemized costs for more than 3,000 two- and four-year colleges; and the seventh edition of The College Board Scholarship Handbook 2004, which lists more than 2,100 scholarships, internships and loan programs for undergraduates.

"It's not so much the competition for scholarships that's driving kids to do well on tests," believes Barron's marketing director Lonny Stein, "as the cutthroat competition to get into schools. There are two million more students in colleges now than there were 20 years ago. They're taking more SATII exams and AP courses to bolster their academic records and to show admissions officers that they are academically self-motivated and over-achievers." At Peterson's, editor-in-chief Laurie Barnett believes that "pressure on students must have quadrupled in the last few years." Peterson's has addressed this concern by more than doubling their number of new test preparation titles in the last two years and ushering in what Barnett calls "a period of vigorous editorial innovation—so many books are for high achievers, and we wanted to make sure there were books like SAT Basics for all those kids who just want to get a reasonable score and get into an affordable community college."

"I don't think there's a limit to how much information this category can handle. The more that's offered, the better for booksellers," says Kaplan Publishing's publisher, Maureen McMahon. "There's so much information offered online, and that fact that students and parents are buying more college guides and test prep material than ever speaks to the convenience and value of books." McMahon admits to watching shoppers browse the college guide racks at her local bookstores—"they always come out with more than they planned to buy."

Oh, Those Ivy-Covered Walls

For this generation of about-to-be collegians, the hunt for the right school means doing research—and lots of it. With the cost of traveling to visit a potential alma mater out of reach for many students, guides offer a wide range of insights into what life will be like among the groves of academe.

For those whose options are wide open, The College Board College Handbook 2004 is the only guide, according to Vanderberg, to profile every (more than 3,600) two- and four-year college in the U.S. Trent Anderson and Seppy Basili's The Unofficial, Unbiased Guide to the 328 Most Interesting Colleges 2004 (Kaplan) details the results of Kaplan's annual National High School Guidance Counselor Survey on the latest trends in college selection—not just the "hottest' or "most overrated" schools, but which TV shows and movies are influencing students' choices of colleges and majors. Sales of Kaplan's college guides, reports McMahon, "took a huge leap last year with the first edition of this title. We recognized that what students and parents want is lists and more lists, and unbiased opinions from students, counselors and admissions officers."

The venerable Fiske Guide to Colleges (2004 edition out this month) by Edward Fiske was published by Random House for 20 years before making the move to Sourcebooks in 2001. Its first Sourcebooks edition, in 2002, reports publisher Dominique Raccah, doubled its previous sales and sales tripled for the 2003 edition. Speaking of venerable, U.S. News & World Report, which has published an annual ranking of colleges since 1983, has this year taken the data compiled on 1,400 colleges and universities and joined with Sourcebooks for U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Directory 2004 (Oct.)

With nearly 50,000 copies in print of its two earlier editions, Intercollegiate Studies Institute has high hopes for next month's release of Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America's Top Schools. According to ISI sales director Doug Schneider, this independently researched and written book "covers the things that matter most, such as core curricula, campus crime, student living arrangements, the quality of teaching and student advising, good professors to seek out, and courses and departments to avoid." He notes that this "thoroughly revised and rewritten" edition, which covers 125 private and public colleges and universities, features numerous interviews with both students and professors.

Barron's, says Stein, offers a wide range of titles for college-bound students because "priorities are as varied as the students themselves." For those especially aggressive college aspirants, the Editors at Barron's offer the third edition of Barron's Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges (Aug.), which profiles 65 of the nation's toughest institutions of higher learning. Also in August, Random House/Princeton Review returns for a 12th year with Robert Franek's Best 351 Colleges, which is based on data from a survey of 106,000 students.

Not everyone is leaping on the "best of" bandwagon. College Rankings Exposed: The Art of Getting a College Education in the 21st Century (Aug.) by Paul Boyer is not, says Peterson's Barnett, "our traditional college guide—it's a response to the rankings game. We call it 'liberation,' because this practical guide empowers students to really find the right college for them and answer their own calling."

While selecting a college may be a stressful task, the run up to that all-important freshman year can be an overwhelming time for both student and parent. Raccah at Sourcebooks encountered a seemingly endless number of decisions and deadlines when her son was ready for college. When should he take the SATs? What were the deadlines for scholarship and financial aid? At what point did he need to reserve a dorm room? Out of that anxiety came the Fiske College Deadline Planner 2004-2005 by Edward Fiske and Bruce Hammond (Aug.). The book's month-by-month calendar lays out exactly when specific deadlines must be met.

After Polly Berent's son's first year at college, mom decided to write a guide for soon-to-be freshmen that would share a bit of common sense and motherly wisdom, from Should I bring a vacuum cleaner? to What's the best place on campus to study? In 1993, Berent self-published Getting Ready for College: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go and sold 40,000 copies from the trunk of her car before signing with Random House for the new and expanded edition which came out in June.

And After College... College!

If finding and being admitted to the undergraduate school of your choice wasn't tough enough, many students find themselves repeating the process as they transition to graduate school.

While the conventional wisdom is that recessions are good for business schools, Business Week magazine reported last month that applications for the B-school class of '05 have fallen by as much as 30%. Not a problem for the eighth edition of Business Week Guide to the Best Business Schools by Jennifer Merritt, says McGraw-Hill group publisher Philip Ruppel. "Our guide covers the top 50 schools and I don't think you'll see a decline there—students won't think it's worth the money to go to a lesser school that can't guarantee a job."

Career Press president Ron Fry also sees an up market for the best of the B schools and for this month's Your MBA Game Plan: Proven Strategies for Getting into the Top Business Schools by Omari Bouknight and Scott Shrum. "After the dot-com bust, people found out it's not as easy to make money as they once thought. The days of a sophomore at Stanford making a million dollars a year from the computer in his dorm room are over—credentials are more important than ever now."

How do you beat out the competition for a place with the best of the best? You write your way there. "Essays are one of the most important components of getting accepted, yet few B-school applicants have ever seen a successful essay," says SuperCollege publisher Gen Tanabe. Examples of essays that closed the deal, he says, can be found in next month's Accepted! 50 Successful Business School Admission Essays. (See sidebar, p. 50.).

Looking for a graduate education that doesn't necessarily include high finance? Check out the updated and expanded edition of Kaplan GRE 2004, which came out last month. And for those hoping to sort out the ills of the world, the American Psychological Association's Graduate Study in Psychology 2004 Edition offers information on more than 500 psychology programs in the U.S. and Canada.

Even in unsettling times, the "year abroad"—or even the four years abroad—is still a popular choice for American college students. "When I first read the proposal for Study Away: The Independent Guide to College Abroad [Sept.]," says Julie Doughty, associate editor at Anchor Books, "I was a little upset—if this book had only been around when I went to college, I could have earned my degree in Rome!" Authors Mariah Balaban and Jennifer Shields both studied abroad and present the globally minded college student with options from studying business in Hong Kong to public health in Africa to applied science in Germany. For those not wanting to venture quite so far from home, Knowledge Media International's Guide to College in Canada for American Students by Nancy Vis offers the helpful news that costs at a top-ranked Canadian university range from $10,000 to $15,000 a year (and that covers everything), and students are still eligible for U.S. government loans at most universities.

Alphabet Soup—GED, SAT, CLEP, etc.

"The rising cost of a college education has made students and parents take the college admissions process even more seriously," says Kaplan's McMahon, who reports that sales of their "less-conventional SAT preparation materials like Extreme SAT Vocabulary Flashcards Flip-O-Matic [Dec.] have exceeded our expectations and led us to believe that parents are purchasing these books for their teens even before the SAT preparation process formally begins." There are also new editions of Kaplan's highly successful and more traditional Perfect Score series—Kaplan LSAT 180 and Kaplan SAT 1600 (Mar.)—which offer the toughest practice questions, the hardest concepts and the strongest strategies. The vigorous sales of these titles, says McMahon, "may be evidence that the most ambitious students are the most likely to purchase test preparation guides." From traditional to classic: Frankenstein: A Kaplan SAT Score-Raising Classic (Jan.) includes more than 1,000 SAT vocabulary words highlighted throughout the text.

Peterson's new Brainiac series, which includes SAT for Brainiacs and ACT for Brainiacs (Mark Alan Stewart, Sept.), reflects, says Barnett, the fact that "top students have grasped the basic concepts and are impatient with easy questions because they are looking at getting to the next level. These are for the high-achieving A students who are aiming at perfect scores." That perfect 1600 is achieved by only 650 out of the roughly 2.3 million high school students take the SATs. Who are these academic whiz kids? 1600 Perfect Score: The Secret of Acing the SAT (ReganBooks, Aug.) by Tom Fischgrund is the first statistical analysis of SAT perfect scorers; it includes extensive interviews with more than 150 students who scored the magic number in the year 2000.

For those two million plus students with more modest goals, 10 Real SATs 2003 (College Board) is "the only test-preparation book," notes Vanderberg, "that offers 10 full-length, actual SATs." In March 2005, the SAT will undergo its most substantive change in 76 years. The total score will rise from 1600 to 2400 with the addition of the new "SAT Writing Exam." While the section on analogies will be gone (whew!), an essay will be added—all contributing, says McGraw-Hill's Ruppel, "to an even higher level of anxiety on the part of student." Not to worry: next March, Laurie Rozakis is at the ready with SAT 2400!: A Sneak Preview of the New SAT English Test (McGraw-Hill).

Students aren't just prepping for the SATs; the SATII, AP and CLEP exams are becoming increasing popular with students, and publishers are gearing up to produce products to help them pump up their scores. "While about 75% of colleges still use the SAT in admissions," notes Princeton Review's Russell, "students' AP and SATII scores give them a distinct edge, especially at selective or highly selective colleges. Most importantly, more and more students are taking AP exams as a way to reduce tuition costs, as scores on these tests are used to obtain college credit—which may explain why sales have exploded in the last few years." Adam Robinson and John Katzman's updated Cracking the SAT and Tom Meltzer's Cracking the AP U.S. History Exam: 2004-2005 are due from Random House/Princeton Review in January. Spark-Notes editorial director Justin Kestler tells PW, "As colleges become increasingly skeptical of the efficacy of the SAT as a predictor of college success, the SATII rises in importance as part of the college admissions process." In June, SparkNotes debuted the first in a series of books that contain five original practice tests for the SATII along with explanations and strategies for mastering the tests. Among the initial offerings are 5 More Practice Tests for the SATII U.S. History and 5 More Practice Tests for Math IC.

"The SAT II shelves seem rather saturated, whereas the AP shelves have room for expansion," notes CliffsNotes senior acquisitions editor Greg Tubach. "We have a solid AP program that grows stronger year after year, which is understandable given the academic weight that APs hold today." There are currently nine Cliffs AP test prep guides available, with Physics B and C releasing in December and Economics: Micro and Macro due in January. Enrollment in AP courses, notes McGraw-Hill's Ruppel, has grown 10%—12% annually over the last five years, with 1.5 million tests being given to some one million students around the world. McGraw-Hill's 5 Steps to a 5 on the Advanced Placement Examinations series is expanding in September to include six additional titles, including 5 Steps to a 5: AP U.S. History by Stephen Armstrong and 5 Steps to a 5: Writing the AP English Essay by Barbara Murphy and Estelle Rankin.

Proving that the AP courses offered in today's high schools are certainly more interesting than they were in the days of simple math, science and history, How to Prepare for the AP Human Geography Exam by Peter S. Alagona and Meredith Marsh (Barron's, July) and The Best Test Preparation for the AP Economics Examinations by Richard Sattora is due from Research & Education Association in October.

REA's quality control manager Larry B. Kling reports that test prep for CLEP (College-Level Examination Program), the most widely accepted credit-for-examination program, "is hotter than ever. People write us every day thanking us for giving their kids a leg up on their education without having to shoulder the increasing course costs." Among the titles created in response to this consumer feedback are The Best Test Prep for the CLEP History of the United States II by Lynn Marlowe and the staff of REA, and CLEP Biology by Laurie Callihan, which will be REA's debut in the hard sciences.

Last year, more than four million adults took literacy and GED classes. Unfortunately, says Peterson's Barnett, "more than 50% dropped out, but not just because they lacked subject knowledge. They also lack basic study skills and self-esteem. With that in mind, we've targeted an overlooked and very underserved population, the Pre-GED Student." A new series, Essentials for the PRE-GED Student, provides instruction designed to prepare and motivate students for success on the actual GED test. David Herzog's Math Essentials for the Pre-GED Student and four other titles are due next month. "GED students are a tremendous market," agrees McGraw-Hill's Ruppel, who cites the October publication of Pre-GED: The Most Comprehensive and Reliable Review of the Skills Necessary for GED Study (Oct.) and GED en español, which will hit stores in February. The second edition of Johanna Holm's Math Workbook for the GED is due from Barron's in October.

Reading Guides

To paraphrase the old adage, man cannot live by math alone. Another sector of study aids concerns reading skills, an area that's seeing several changes of late, including an innovative new player. Tamper with the Bard? Yo Romeo, wassup with this? SparkNotes may be the new kid on the reading guide block, but they certainly aren't afraid to shake things up. Their No Fear Shakespeare series debuted this May with 10 of Will Shakespeare's most popular works in a sure-to-be controversial format. The original text of the play is presented on the left and (gasp!) a modern American English translation is on the right. "We plan to market NFS with a series of innovative promotions," says Kestler, "including Shakespeare reading nights at which readers will read the original and the translation in succession and NFS contests to translate works we've yet to cover, such as Shakespeare's Sonnets."

How does the venerable CliffsNotes feel about potential competition? "We have an established track record of prospering no matter how many competitors at one time or another have been on the scene," says Tubach. "We certainly respect SparkNotes for what they have achieved. With 45 years of experience and more than 100 million CliffsNotes sold, we're confident that consumers will continue to favor CliffsNotes—written exclusively by educators—as their preferred brand." Among the forthcoming CliffsNotes titles is a typically classic trio due in December: Mrs. Dalloway, Return of the Native and The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Continuum Contemporaries series, says commissioning editor David Barker, "is the only 'book notes' or 'readers guide' series to feature intelligent literary criticism and to focus only on contemporary novels." Titles now out include guides to Don DeLillo's White Noise, Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Scholastic is introducing the first-ever reading guides designed for middle-grade novels and written for children. The first eight titles from the Scholastic Bookfiles series—including Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Louis Sachar's Holes and Phyllis Reynolds's Shiloh—came out last month, with four more per season due through 2006. All of them, says executive editor Kate Waters, deal with "books kids really love to read." Unlike other supplementary guides, the novel's plot summary takes up a mere 5—6 pages. The rest of the book is devoted to craft and writing projects to enrich the reading experience, glossaries of challenging words and author interviews that Waters says "give them the chance to talk directly to kids."

Studious Is as Studious Does

No matter the age of the student, a bit of help along the academic highway is always welcome—and several publishers offer a variety of study aids and related materials.

"The No Child Left Behind Act," says Stein at Barron's, "calls for schools to show 'measurable results' to qualify for funding. Accordingly, more tests are being given at various grade levels and schools are looking for review materials that will help them get their students ready." This month, Barron's is publishing the first three titles in a new series, Making the Grade, targeted to students in grades K-6. Among the first up is Making the Grade: Everything Your 3rd Grader Needs to Know. The series is designed to help parents and teachers ensure that they are keeping up with the new standards and curriculum for each grade.

SparkNotes has started its own K-8 publishing division, FlashKids, which will also focus on responding to the needs of parents and students as they face the demands of the NCLB act. Included in the program are workbooks that give students a head start on reading, writing and math skills, resources for preparing for state-sponsored exams, and a Web site that will serve as a companion to all of the FlashKids titles. FlashKids will be on the bookstore shelves in January.

Directed toward students in grades 7 through 12, Career Press's Master Math: Solving Word Problems (Aug.) by Brita Immergut shows how to analyze any word problem (the infamous train left the proverbial station...), translate it into mathematical terms and come up with the right answer. REA's entry in this arena, Super Review of Basic Math and Pre-Algebra, is now in stores

Peterson's Get Wise! Series, says Barnett, "is a good example of creatively targeting an audience. Today's teenager is used to getting information from a computer screen, filled with zippy animated images. So we created Chi, a wisecracking teenager who knows the alien language called High School." Three new titles are due this month; one of which—Nathan Barber's Get Wise! Mastering Spelling Skills—Barnett describes as "set up like a video game. Chi fights off mutant misspellings, which have been hurled across the universe, landing in books, schoolwork, dictionaries and spellchecks everywhere!" Peterson's Test Prep Your IQ series is designed so that students have fun while learning how to take the SAT and other standardized tests. All five books in the series (including Test-Prep Your IQ with the Essentials of Music and Song by David Herzog and Nathan Barber's Test-Prep Your IQ with the Essentials of Sports) offer strategy, instruction and mini IQ tests with fun facts and trivia.

The new CliffsStudySolver series, a workbook approach that allows students to learn "by doing, not just reviewing," says Tubach, can be used by first-time learners or adults returning to the classroom. The first four titles—on Basic Math and Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Spanish I and English Grammar—were published in June, with two more to follow in January. In October, Barron's Easy Way series, which covers virtually all subjects taught on advanced high school and college 101 levels, adds Earth Science the Easy Way by Alan Sills as well as the fourth editions of Joseph Mascetta's Chemistry the Easy Way and Peter Eisen's Accounting the Easy Way. REA's High School Tutors series makes its first foray into the social sciences in November with Gary Land and the REA staff's Unites States History & Government Tutor. The publisher's EXAM Notes ready-reference guides have just expanded into the humanities with Music, which covers the history and mechanics of music as well as thumbnail bios and pictures of the master composers.

Still utterly confused? No problem, McGraw-Hill's popular Utterly Confused series has just added Beginning French for the Utterly Confused by Amilcar Sebastian Mercado (June) and English Grammar for the Utterly Confused by Laurie Rozakis (July).

While Americans may often feel like the most unpopular kids on the world block these days, American colleges and universities are still an irresistible draw to students from Denmark to Dubai. To illustrate, this story was passed on by Princeton Review's Russell. "In March, when U.S. soldiers entered the abandoned mansion of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's former Deputy Prime Minister, one of the books they found was the Princeton Review's Cracking the GMAT... with notes in the margins."