1. Investigate and choose a savings vehicle.There are many options available, including U.S. Savings Bonds, bank accounts, mutual funds, and state savings or prepaid tuition plans.
2. Begin saving as early as possible.Whatever savings vehicle you choose, you will be much better off if you start saving early. For example, if you put aside $50 per month starting when your child is born, at 5 percent interest, you will have saved more than $17,000 when your child is 18. If you start saving the same amount monthly when your child is 8 years old, you will have saved only $7,000 by the time your child is ready for college.
Elementary and Middle School
3. Encourage your child to challenge him or herself academically, develop good study habits, and become involved in school- and community-based extracurricular activities.A positive school experience that is both academically challenging and rich in extracurricular activities is important in itself and as preparation for college.
4. Discuss career and college options with your child and encourage his or her aspirations.Many students assume that higher education is not for them or that the jobs they are interested in don't require college. Today, some form of formal postsecondary education or training is required for almost every well-paying job. With $60 billion in financial aid available, college is possible for almost every American. So encourage your child to aim high, explore all the options, and plan to attend college.
5. Make sure your child starts on a college preparatory track in middle school or junior high.If students don't take the right courses in middle school, they may be shut out of the college preparatory track in high school. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that middle and junior high school students take Algebra I in 8th Grade, Geometry in 9th Grade, and English, Science, and History or Geography every year. Foreign language, computer, and visual or performing art classes are also recommended.
6. Meet with a guidance counselor to map out your child's high school curriculum and familiarize yourself with the college admissions and financial aid processes.If your child has taken the right courses in middle school, he or she should be ready for a college preparatory curriculum in high school.Your high school guidance counselor should also be able to provide you with information on the college admissions and financial aid processes, or point you toward the right reference materials.
7. Help your children research colleges and narrow their options.There are many resources available, both in print and on the Internet, to help you search for colleges by special characteristics or academic offerings and learn about specific colleges (check out the Choosing the Right College Resource Library). After you've done some initial research is the right time to add any special considerations, such as price, distance from home, or religious affiliation, to your child's list of college options.Although it is important to make these decisions before your child has his or her heart set on a specific college, eliminating schools before you have hard information may limit your child's choices unnecessarily. For example—after financial aid is taken into consideration—a private college can cost about the same as a public institution. Without that information, you might overlook a college that would be a good fit for your child simply because of an incorrect understanding of the cost.
8. Make sure your child takes any required college admissions tests and submits all admissions, financial aid, and–if necessary–campus housing paperwork on time.Meeting all the requirements of applying for college is a good lesson in itself, but most students will require some help. Setting up a calendar with all the various tasks and deadlines can be very helpful for both you and your child.
9. Learn all you can about financial aid and assist your child in filling out the application forms.Most financial aid comes in the form of grants and scholarships or low-interest loans. The federal government, states, colleges, and private organizations all sponsor student aid programs. Colleges will provide you with the forms you need to apply for most federal, state, and college aid, and are a great source of information about the various types of aid available.In addition, many books and websites are available to help you search and apply for private scholarships. In most cases, you will have to supply some information about your family's income and assets on financial aid application forms, so be sure to have those records assembled. Visit the Paying for College Resource Library for more information on print and Internet resources that can help you to learn more about this complicated—but vitally important—topic.
10. Devise a budget with your child and determine how much will be covered by financial aid, how much you'll provide, and how much your child will contribute by working and/or borrowing.After you've received your financial aid award statements, it's essential to sit down with your child and make a realistic budget that includes both fixed expenses, such as tuition and books, and variable items such as rent, clothing, and transportation. Once you have completed your budget and subtracted the grant and scholarship aid your child has been awarded, you can determine how much you will contribute and how much your child will have to come up with from savings, earnings, and student loans. Your child could end up working long hours while in college or borrowing more than she really needs unless she puts herself on a budget and makes conscious decisions about how she'll meet her financial obligations.