Aside from buying a house, college is life’s most expensive investment for most families. It can cost between $80,000 and $120,000 to get a four-year degree, after financial aid. Without financial aid, it can cost as much as $300,000 for a four-year degree. For many families that cost is borne by student loans, which are expensive and a huge burden on students when they start their career.
If you’ve got a student in middle or high school, here are five tips to help you get started on your college financial plan today!
Tips to Build Your College Financial Plan
Start in middle school, or start in freshman year. Start as soon as you can. This is critical for most families unless you are very wealthy and the cost of college isn’t an issue. For most middle-class families, sending a kid (or multiple kids) to college will mean expenses: tuition, fees, lodging, food, transportation. Make an honest assessment of what you can afford. If you start when your child is a freshman, you’ll have to save $1,000 a month for 6.5 years to afford the $80,000 it will cost.
Consult a Financial Planner
How much financial aid when you get to apply to college depends on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There are some rules the FAFSA uses that may surprise you, so consult a financial planner early. For example:
- The FAFSA counts 20% of student assets towards your estimated family contribution, but only 5.6% of parent assets. So if you’ve got money in your child’s name (such as a UTMA/UGMA gift account), you might consider using that money while they’re still in high school for legitimate expenses, so their financial aid package will be better.
- The FAFSA counts non-retirement parent assets, so any assets you have in a retirement account don’t affect financial aid.
- For parents who own businesses or rental property, there are special rules, which a financial planner can help you with.
Find Colleges Where You Can Get Merit Scholarships
If saving $1,000-$2,000 a month every month for four years of high school isn’t an achievable goal (and it isn’t for most families), find colleges where you can receive merit aid for college. Setting expectations early with your child, and using affordability as a key criteria can be crucial. Many colleges offer significant merit scholarships, and you don’t have to be a straight-A student to qualify. The key is finding colleges where your GPA is over the average of their incoming class, or where you have some key quality they’re looking for (like geographic diversity).
Make an Early Estimate of your EFC
The estimated family contribution (EFC), calculated through the FAFSA, is the least you can expect to pay for college out-of-pocket, and also determines eligibility for federal and state aid programs (like the Pell Grant or subsidized student loans). Finaid.org has a good calculator that will allow you to find out what your EFC will be. As early as freshman year, run this calculator. Do it each year. You’ll get a good sense of what the government thinks you can take on for college.
Start Your Scholarship Search Early
There are scholarships your child can win in freshman year. There are scholarships for people of particular ethnicities, or religions, for people from specific regions and with specific interests. Apply and start creating your pile of money. Don’t wait until senior year. Using a tool like LifeLaunchr’s Scholarship Match is a great way to get scholarships specifically tailored for you.