The following is a guest post by author Doug Warshauer.

As you plop yourself onto the couch and place your six-month-old baby (we'll name her Sally) onto your lap and begin to read her a story, you begin the process of her education that will eventually, you hope, lead to her admission to college. Though it may seem far off in the future, college conjures in parents' minds a unusual combination of hope and fear: hope that young Sally's splendid education will help her lead an interesting and productive life, and fear that it will cost you a boatload.

What Does College Cost?

The fear is not misplaced. Total costs at a four-year, in-state public university typically range from $15,000 to $25,000 per year. If you are fortunate (?) enough that Sally attends an Ivy League college, her education will set you back $40,000 or more every year.

That's today's numbers. In the 18 years before Sally reaches college age, those costs will more than double. College costs have been rising at a rate of approximately 6% per year. Thinking about paying for college would make any parent frightful.

"So," you think to yourself, "I will overcome my fear. I will start now and save for those college bills. I'll be ready when the time arrives."

Facing Big Tuition Fears

You put Sally down for her nap, sit at your desk, and decide to calculate how much you will need to have saved in 18 years. It doesn't take long before you're ready to pull your hair out. There are too many uncertainties.

Let's take stock of all the variables that you ultimately need to forecast to estimate how much money you'll need saved in 18 years:

  1. What school will Sally choose to attend?
  2. How much will that school's cost rise between now and when she attends?
  3. How much financial aid will your family receive to help pay for college?

Even if you could answer those three questions, you still wouldn't know how much money you need to save each year until you could answer these questions, too:

  1. How much money will your family's income grow over the next 18 years?
  2. What investment return will you earn on the money you save for college?

Some Good News About Saving for College

Ready for some good news? Just listing these five questions sets you on the path to productively thinking about saving for college. It's a lot of uncertainty, yes, but each of these questions can be answered. Not definitively, of course, but they can be answered adequately enough to create a college savings plan that will work. In future articles in this series, we'll discuss how you can adequately answer each of those five questions.

Doug Warshauer is the father of four children and the author of the book If I'm So Smart…Where Did All My Money Go?: Balancing Your Financial Objectives for Lasting Wealth, which, among other things, teaches parents how to create a college savings plan that really works.