If you have little kids, you probably see college expenses as some distant cloud hardly deserving attention. But as your kids age, that cloud gets closer, darker, and larger, until suddenly you realize it’s a raging storm that threatens to wreck your personal finances. The sooner you start dealing with the likelihood of that storm, the better your finances will weather it.
Here are seven clever ways to get ahead of the college finance situation.
- Have your kid apply for the small scholarships. When you’re facing a college bill in the tens of thousands, applying for the $250 Lions Club scholarship might seem like a waste of time. It’s not, and here’s why… First, obviously, it is some money. A few of those little scholarships can add up to serious money. Second, college financial aid officers like it when a student brings third-party money to the pot, and may sweeten the package in order to attract that student. For example, if two students with similar qualifications and financial needs apply, but one brings along a few small scholarships, the financial aid office may offer a more lucrative overall package to the student with the scholarships. Ironic? Yes, but it makes sense.
- Put your kid to work looking for those scholarships. Tell your daughter to spend one hour per week during her junior year in high school seeking and applying for scholarships. Have her look for scholarships related to her ethnicity, your line of work, your geography, her interests, clubs, hobbies, etc. There are thousands of scholarships available in countless niches. If your child scores one decent scholarship, her effort could be worth way more than a summer’s worth of flipping burgers.
- Have your kid take a few Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Yes, these courses are hard, and not every kid can hack it. But having taken a few AP courses looks good on a college application (which can increase the financial aid package in itself), and most colleges provide bona fide college credit for successful AP tests. That can mean serious savings down the road. The catch is that colleges differ as to what scores on the AP test they accept; if a student gets a 5 on an AP test, he’ll get credit at just about any college, but if he gets a 3, many colleges will not give credit. The subject plays a role, too — a 3 in chemistry is more likely to be accepted than a 3 in history.
- Look for more money the second year. Once your son is accepted and working his way through freshman year, start looking for more money for his sophomore year. Students drop out during their freshman year in large numbers, so it stands to reason that many previously claimed scholarships become suddenly unclaimed. Your son should visit the school’s financial aid office and ask for options about increasing his package.
- Consider junior college classes, even in high school. There’s no question that junior colleges and community colleges cost less than four-year colleges, but many students want to get away from home and start a four-year college as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of junior colleges. If they take one or two core classes each summer or in the evening during their senior year of high school, they will probably not have to take the same classes at their four-year school. Just make sure the credits all transfer.
- Start saving early. Okay, this is obvious, but many parents assume that their incomes will rise proportionately with childcare and education costs… And many of them realize how wrong they were when the first giant tuition bill arrives. Find a good college savings account and start dumping money into it the day the baby is born. You’ll need it!
- Finally, choose your college wisely. This is another obvious one, but you may not know the deal. Some state schools actively seek out-of-state students and give them good deals, which means forcing your kid to attend the local state college is not necessarily the most financially prudent move. And private colleges, many of which have giant tuitions, often give away more financial aid than state schools. And they don’t care what state you live in, so the in-state issue is moot. If your kid wants to go far away to school, take the time to shop around. You may be surprised to find that you don’t have to pay any more than if Johnny stayed close to home.
What other suggestions do you have for helping pay for your kids to go to college?