- Start saving for college early. Even if you can only save a small amount per month, it's better to start small than not at all. The sooner you begin saving for college, the less you'll need to borrow. And if you're saving in a designated college savings plan, such as a 529 account, you'll also experience tax advantages as you save.
- When a monthly expense such as daycare or a car loan comes to an end, immediately redirect that money toward college savings — before you have a chance to get used to the extra spending money. It's an easy way to move money from one commitment to another, and your college savings account will benefit. Since your budget is used to that monthly expense, reallocating those regular payments towards savings should be an easy transition.
- On gift-giving occasions such as birthdays and religious holidays, ask family and friends to contribute to your child's college savings plan instead of buying toys. Many college savings accounts, such as the U.Fund 529 College Investing Plan in Massachusetts, offer gifting webpages that make giving as easy as online shopping. Young children may not even notice fewer or smaller toys, but the money not spent on toys and invested in college savings will grow over time and reduce the child's college debt. Giving for college is also a great last-minute gift. Many gifting webpages let givers print out a decorative certificate to present to the parents and child.
- Review your college savings account annually and consider increasing your contributions, especially after you receive a raise. When reviewing your account, make sure you are on track to meet your goals within your particular timeframe. And consider setting up regular, automatic transfers to contribute to your college savings account so that you don't accidentally forget to contribute.
- When your child reaches middle school, increase the amount that you're saving. Also, encourage your child to begin exploring career interests using self-assessment quizzes, career videos, tips for success, and other tools available in MEFA Pathway. By engaging students in grades 6-12 through the use of dynamic, fun, and enlightening tools and features, MEFA Pathway acts as a repository of student activity and helps reveal interests, skills, and opportunities. Having a plan in mind for their future can help students realize the value in attending college. You can find more information on MEFA Pathway activities for middle school students here.
- As your child selects high school courses, keep in mind that admissions offices consider academic rigor to be the most important qualification in college admissions. Colleges want to see that students are challenging themselves where appropriate, even if it means that they may not necessarily get all A's. AP classes are a great way to expose students to rigorous content. Students who take AP classes, and especially those who receive a score of 3 or higher on the exam, have shown colleges that they are not only ready to go to college, but also able to handle themselves academically with collegiate-level coursework.
- Use Net Price Calculators to better understand the true cost of college. When you're trying to determine which college you can afford, the most important number is the school's "net price." These calculators provide prospective students and their families with an estimated financial aid offer, based on the family's financial and household information. The number of questions and the information collected will vary based on the calculator each school uses. Each college's Net Price Calculator is located somewhere on the college's website. Check for it on the financial aid or admissions page, or use the homepage search feature to find out where it's located.
- Early in the planning process, have conversations with your child about college affordability and how it relates to your family. Place college costs in the context of your other important financial life decisions. The topic of college affordability is so important, and parents and students should make sure to have discussions about paying for college (we call them "kitchen table conversations") early and often. After these family talks, both parents and students can walk away with a clearer understanding of their current financial picture and how it can impact the kinds of schools students should be adding to their list.
- Once your college list is complete, research all of the deadlines and requirements for the financial aid application process. Each school you apply to could have different requirements and deadlines, and it's important that you find out this information for every school on your list. The best way to do so is to check the school's website or call the financial aid office. You should be sure to submit your financial aid applications by each school's deadline! By doing so, you will maximize the financial aid you can receive to help pay for college costs.
- Keep saving money right up until your first college bill is due. The more you can pay with savings or with an interest-free monthly payment plan, the less you will need to borrow. Your first bill will arrive in the summer, and will likely be due in late July or early August. But you should start creating a financing plan early on. If you think you may need to borrow to cover some of your costs, don't wait until the bill arrives to start the process.
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