Bright ideas for tech-savvy educators, right to your inbox

Paying for College: 10 Tips to Help Parents Plan Ahead

Friday, March 17, 2017 -- Sarah Cornelius

College education is certainly valuable, but it’s not necessarily a value. In fact, according to CollegeBoard, average annual tuition at public schools has hit $9,410 for in-state students and $23,890 for out-of-state students, with private colleges reaching a $32,410 price tag. Even more disconcerting? The Institute for College Access & Success reports that in 2015, 7 out of 10 college seniors graduated with student loan debt, averaging $30,100 per borrower.

Of course, the other side of the coin is the significant and long lasting benefits a college degree confers. According to data from CNN Money and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.5% of college grads are unemployed, versus 5.6% of individuals who only hold a high school diploma. And, college grads make more money—an average of $1,227 per week as compared to $678. Annually, that adds up to a salary difference of nearly $30,000 dollars.

As a parent, what can you do to make sure you and your child are financially prepared for college? Whether your child is just months away from high school graduation or only beginning their academic journey, here are ten tips to help make college tuition affordable:

1. Take full advantage of government dollars

Every year, the federal and state governments provide millions of dollars in funding for higher education. This can take the form of grants (which don’t need to be repaid), low-interest loans, or work-study opportunities. Make sure that your child receives the full amount of government aid they qualify for by filling out the FAFSA each year that your child will be attending college. Even if your household has a relatively high income, you may quality for grants or loans you don’t expect. Keep in mind—government loans will always have the lowest rate, and repayment can be deferred for six months following graduation.

2. Start saving with a 529 plan

If child is still a ways away from college, a 529 plan is a great option to start saving for their education. These plans are operated by a state or educational institution, and similar to a 401K or IRA, allow participants to choose from several investment options to help put your money to work for you. In most states, enrollees also benefit from certain income tax deductions or credits. 529 savings plans can be used towards the costs of most qualified colleges, and you don’t necessarily have to enroll in your state’s plan, or have your child attend a school in your plan’s state.

3. Make a budget

No one likes to budget, but you can’t deny the power of thinking through (and writing down) a clear plan for spending and saving. Start building in college saving to your family’s regular budget, and get used to putting away a dollar amount that works for you every paycheck. Even if you can afford just a small amount, it will add up and help over time. If possible, set up an automatic transfer to make saving easier. And, avoid the trap of thinking too far ahead—set up a realistic monthly goal instead of focusing on the total dollar amount you need to save to afford college tuition for your child.

4. Get to know the guidance counselor

High school guidance counselors are outstanding resources to help you and your child navigate through the college application and funding process. They can help identify grants and scholarships, especially local ones, that your child would be a good candidate for. They can also be a big help in making sense of the often-complicated process of applying for federal financial aid.

5. Find the right scholarship fit

There’s a huge array of scholarships out there to help make college affordable for deserving students. And, they’re not limited to those kids at the top of the class. A wide variety of community, professional, and charitable organizations offer scholarships for a broad range of skills, interests, and accomplishments. Participation in student groups, cultural heritage, interest in a specific career, volunteer work can more can all make your child eligible for college dollars. Check out websites like Fastweb! and the College Board’s Scholarship Search with your child and start finding options that fit their unique personality and skillsets.

6. Play the field

Almost all schools offer their own merit- and need-based scholarships. And just like every student’s situation and strengths are a little different, so is every institutions’. Each school that your child is accepted to will offer a slightly different financial aid package. The more schools your child applies to, the more options they may have to choose from. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with schools. If you child has been accepted at multiple institutions, you may be able to use the best financial aid package they’re offered as leverage to improve others—and ultimately help put your child’s top school in financial reach.

7. Consider a service-based program

Some organizations, like Americorps, the PeaceCorps, and military ROTC programs, offer college funding support in exchange for a service commitment. While these programs are certainly not for every student, if your child has a sincere interest in the work they do, it can be a great route to make college affordable. Not to mention, they can pick up valuable skills and experiences the classroom simply doesn’t offer along the way.

8. Don’t rule out education abroad

At first blush, studying abroad sounds even more expensive than a standard college experience here in the U.S. However, many foreign higher education systems are organized much differently than ours, and actually charge considerably less in tuition. If your child is interested in taking their post-secondary experience across U.S. borders, don’t count the option out—just be sure to understand all of logistics surrounding visas, cost-of-living, and foreign student status in the country they’re interested in for a complete picture of the price tag.

9. See the value of community college

Some students (and parents!) continue to look down on community college as a good post-high school option. But, community colleges have a lot to offer. For students that know they want to attend college, but aren’t exactly sure of the path they take, community colleges can provide a cost-effective way to take care of general courses and decide on a major before transferring to a four-year college. Community colleges also offer many associate degrees and certificates in many more specific career fields and skilled trades that are both in-demand and well-paying. A bonus of community college? It’s usually much easier for students to live at home while attending in order to save money on room and board.

10. Think about a gap year

There is nothing set in stone about the traditional path of graduating high school then heading right off for four years of college. At 18 years old, some kids aren’t sure of the direction to take with their post-secondary career, and some are ready for a break from the classroom to gain other experiences, like travel, volunteering, or work. A gap year can be a great option! Depending on what your child wants to do, there is potential for them (and you!) to save additional money to put towards tuition. Maybe more importantly, when they do get to college, it is likely to be a more fulfilling, worthwhile experience, and a better long-term investment.

College is an exciting finish line to mark the end of students’ high school careers, but it takes a lot of hard work to get there. Edmentum offers a variety of at-home programs for high school students looking to catch up or get ahead. Check out Study Island for Home for standards-aligned practice or EdOptions Academy for a fully-accredited virtual school alternative to earn high school credits online and help your aspiring college student start mastering the skills they need to succeed at home.