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4 Things You Can Do Now to Get Ready to Pay for College

John Coogan

Higher education is expensive, and the price tag is only going to rise. A recent study finds the cost of college is expected to double in nine years. College costs for a child born today could be three times as much when it's time for them to enroll. That's something most parents don't even want to think about, but it's a reality. Many parents are concerned about how to afford it and how much of a burden it will put on their children's future, but the sooner you plan, the easier it will be when it's time to pay up.

1. Meet With a Financial Adviser

It almost seems absurd to call a financial adviser about how to pay for a child's college education when your little one hasn't yet started preschool, but the sooner you can start saving, the better, and a financial adviser can help.

According to Fidelity Investments'  seventh annual College Savings Indicator study, most parents who work with a financial adviser are closer to achieving their college-savings goals than those without. The study showed that out of 2,543 families surveyed, just over half had started saving for college, but almost 90% of families who were working with a financial advisor were already saving for college.

While financial advisers can help you determine how much to save and how to invest it, they can also help with the college application and financial aid process. Some advisers even help families fill out the financial aid application so they aren't rejected for any simple mistakes.

Advisers can also help after the acceptance letters start coming in. They can look at the financial aid package from each school and help a family determine which one would work best with their financial situation. Different types of loans can be very confusing and financial advisers can help find which ones will work best with a certain budget.

2. Start Saving

Almost any financial adviser is going to tell you to start putting money away as soon possible. One great way to do that is with a 529 college savings plan. They are an attractive option because your investment continues to grow — tax-free — and is not taxed when it's time to pay for college. A recent College Savings Foundation survey found that just over half of all parents who were already saving opened 529 accounts before their child's fifth birthday.

Some states are even running television and print ads for their college savings plans. In Virginia, new ads about the 529 plan target millennials, many of whom are most likely paying student loans of their own and don't want to see their children face the same burden.

3. Talk to Your Children About Who Will Pay for College

Some children expect their parents to pick up the tab for college, but they could be in for a rude awakening. A Fidelity survey found that "parents expect their children to pay for more than one-third of college costs, but only 57% of those parents shared that information with their children."

Just having conversations about saving money for college can go a long way. According to a T. Rowe Price study, more kids save money for college when parents discuss it with them. The study found that "58% of kids whose parents frequently talk to them about saving for college say they are saving for college on their own, as opposed to 23% whose parents do not frequently discuss college savings."

To start that conversation, it could be beneficial for families to bring children with them when they meet with a financial adviser. The Fidelity survey found that only one in 10 parents arranged for their children to speak with their financial adviser about college planning. That's a small number considering the fact that the same survey found most parents do expect their children to pitch in. In the report, Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning at Fidelity said, "Working together to talk through priorities and determine opportunities to save can help families develop a solid, realistic plan that they can stick to — which is imperative, given that most families need to step up their savings efforts to help meet college goals."

4. Increase Your Odds of Receiving Scholarships

There are many different types of scholarships that students can start working toward as early as middle school.

From a young age, many children are taught that they might be able to get a scholarship if they get good grades or excel in sports, and that is the case for many schools. According to a report from the New America Foundation, the number of students receiving merit aid is around 44% in private schools and 18% in public institutions.

There are also a number of scholarships based on volunteer services.

  • Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes: Each year the Barron Prize awards 10 students who have made a significant positive difference to people and the environment with a $5,000 scholarship.
  • Stephen J. Brady Stop Hunger Scholarships: This scholarship recognizes students who have made an impact in the fight against hunger. Recipients receive a $5,000 scholarship and a matching grant in their name for the charity of their choice.
  • Christopher Reeve Award Program: This $1,000 scholarship is given to teens who have demonstrated tremendous courage, compassion and caring in serving their communities.

These are just a few of the many volunteer scholarship opportunities you can find on scholarship searches like studentaid.ed.gov, scholarships.com, fastweb.com and collegeboard.org. It's also a good idea to look for any opportunities with local civic leagues, churches or businesses.

There are also many scholarships available to those in specific situations. Karen Burris wasn't sure how she was going to pay for her daughter's education after her husband, Army Major Andrew Scott Burris, was killed during a training accident in 1997. Their daughter, Allison, was only 3 years old. Over the years, Karen spent a lot of time thinking about it and decided she didn't want Allison to graduate with thousands of dollars in debt. When the time came to enroll, Karen decided to take on the burden herself. (Full Disclosure: During Allison's second year at the University of South Carolina, Karen learned about The Children of Fallen Patriots — the organization I direct — which paid for Allison's tuition, room and board and any other expenses that other grants or scholarships wouldn't cover, as well as reimbursed Karen for all of the money she had already spent on Allison's education.) Allison is now in her fourth year of school and she's majoring in visual communications.

Whether it's meeting with a financial advisor, investing in a college savings plan, talking with your children or investigating scholarship opportunities, the sooner families prepare for the growing cost of higher education, the better off they will be.


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