What Parents Need to Know About College Planning

How parents can help steer high school freshmen down the right path to college.

In many American households, going to college is an expectation for children, but planning for college can be a big step for any family, especially if the investment in post-secondary education could bust the family budget.

Begin researching and planning your child’s college budget.

Parents who start the college planning process early have an advantage. They can help their teen begin to gain confidence freshman year, knowing that they have a sound financial plan in place to pay for their education.

In 2011, the average price for tuition, room and board for a college freshman rose to $13,600 at public institutions and to $36,000 at private non-profit universities — an increase of more than a third since last year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“If you do the right research up front, then you are going to pick a school that not only has our child’s best interest at heart, but also has a substantial financial aid package,” said Scott Weingold, a national college financing expert and co-publisher of CollegeMadeSimple.com.

Parents and students should work together to identify potential scholarships and monitor deadlines for the awards. The bulk of college scholarships are reserved for high school seniors, however, students can begin earning money sooner.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is among the scholarships that can build a college nest egg for young students. In the past five years, the contest, open to teens in grades 7-12, has contributed more than $25 million in scholarships to winners.

Help your student shop around for the right deal.

If your student can’t raise enough money for college through scholarships and family contributions, they may have to consider student loans. Nearly 7 in 10 undergrads have student loans.

Students seeking Stafford Subsidized Loans must meet financial requirements because the loans are based on need. The loans provide up to $3,500 per year to freshman and up to $5,500 per year for seniors. Interest does not accrue on the loan while a student is in school at least half time.

Stafford Unsubsidized Loans have no financial requirements. They accrue interest from the time funds are disbursed to the school. Independent freshman can qualify for up to $6,000 annually through the federal loan.

Knowing that they have to pay the tab for some of their education could help a student narrow down their field of choices to a campus that meets their needs and is affordable.

Get them ready to stand on their own.

Planning for college during freshman year also means preparing a student to be more responsible during high school. The college years shouldn’t be a student’s first taste of independence or extended stay from home.

Sign them up for summer programs that allow them to spend weeks away from home enjoying a hobby, studying a subject of interest or volunteering. Some universities offer a summer pre-college experience to give students a chance to learn their surroundings and take college classes.

Such programs teach students valuable lessons about co-existing with a roommate they don’t know. They also learn how to care for their basic needs. The more self-sufficient a rising freshman becomes, the more successful they will be throughout high school and when they attend college.

Don’t worry, detachment is part of growing up.

If you have done a great job helping your child mature, don’t be offended if they detach from you a bit now that they are in high school. Let them explore their surroundings without feeling guilty.

“They are testing a sense of independence that they have never experienced before,” explained Catalina Hernandez, a retention coordinator in the Illinois College Advising Corps. “Give them time, they will need you again and they will reach out.”

Encourage involvement in activities that interest your child.

The more activities a child is encouraged to participate in, the more he or she will discover new interests and hobbies that could help shape education and career goals. Extracurricular activities also enhance resumes and make a student’s application more appealing to colleges.

Ultimately, parents need to hit the ground running during their child’s freshmen year of high school. They should promote independence and involvement in new activities, but let their child know that college is imminent if they want it by being open about the costs and ways your family is going to pay for college.