How to Pay For College: 11 Strategies for Savvy Parents

|

If you’ve got a child headed to college this fall, chances are they received their acceptance letters in March or April and are making plans as we speak. That means it’s go-time for you, too. If you don’t have a clear plan of action for funding your child’s education—or you do, but need some additional advice—we’ve got you covered.

Paying for college is no easy feat, but there are a number of tried-and-true methods you can use to avoid the pitfalls that too-often lead to massive debt for both students and their families. The following 11 strategies offer ways to pay for college that can help you be better prepared, whether your child’s college education is years away or right around the corner.

 

How To Afford College This Fall

1. Invest in a college savings account

If you plan on sending your kids to college, your first and most important step is to invest in a savings account that’s specifically designed for funding a college education. Surprisingly, many parents aren’t aware that such plans even exist.

According to new data from Morningstar, only a small percentage of American families are taking advantage of tax-favored college savings accounts. That means they’re missing out on thousands of dollars in savings that such plans can provide.

With accounts like the 529 plan and the Coverdell plan, you pay no taxes on the account’s earnings. You can also withdraw funds at any time provided you use them for qualified education expenses.

There are several different types of college savings plans available, each with their own rules, benefits, and restrictions, so it’s important to carefully research your options before choosing the right one for your children’s education costs.

Worried that it’s too late to invest in a 529 plan? The good news is that it’s never too late. Yes, it’s better to start as early as possible, but you’ll still benefit from the tax advantages regardless of when you open the account. Plus, you can switch beneficiaries at any time, which means that if your first child quits college, you can use it for your children who will be attending college in a few years’ time.

2. Apply for federal aid

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form helps determine both current and prospective college students’ eligibility for government-sponsored financial aid. Even if you don’t think your college-bound kid qualifies for financial aid, experts still recommend that every student to fill out the FAFSA form.

“Many students choose not to apply for FAFSA because they think that federal college aid is only available for those less fortunate than they are,” says CNBC careers reporter Abigail Hess. “But in fact, most Americans are eligible.” Aid is available to any household that makes under $250,000 a year, which means only about five percent of families (i.e., the wealthiest in the U.S.) don’t qualify.

Federal aid comes in four main forms: grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans. While most grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid, a federally sponsored student loan is just like any other loan in that you’ll be required to pay it back, with interest.

However, federal loans offer a number of important advantages over private loans. Interest rates on federal college loans are almost always lower, credit checks and cosigners are generally not required, and payment plans tend to be more flexible. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), a government agency that protects consumers from unfair financial practices, recommends exhausting all federal aid resources before applying for private loans.

3. Automate your savings

Once you’ve chosen a savings plan, it’s a good idea to set up automatic contributions as soon as possible to ensure that you’re contributing to your kid’s college fund every single month. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll become accustomed to the expense and learn how to adjust your budget accordingly. With some college savings plans, you can even automatically divert a portion of your paycheck directly to the account before it ever reaches your own bank account.

Experts also recommend checking in with your automated savings plan every year and making any necessary adjustments if your financial situation has changed. For example, if you’ve received a raise in the past year, you can probably afford to increase your monthly contributions.

4. Take advantage of any windfalls

Contributions to your kid’s college savings plan can come from a variety of sources, not just your household income. Consider contributing at least half of any work bonuses, tax refunds, or inheritance money to the account.

Worried about contribution limits? With the 529 plan, there’s a loophole that allows you to contribute up to five years of funds all at once—that’s $75,000 per parent—without triggering the $15,000 yearly limit.

5. Explore advanced placement classes for college credit

Since the mid-50s, college-bound teens have had the opportunity to earn college credit simply by scoring high on advanced placement (AP) courses. Now, organizations like the Modern States Education Alliance—a philanthropic group working to make college more affordable—are offering high school students the chance to take advanced placement courses via the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) for free.

To participate, all your student needs is internet access to take the courses and proximity to a CLEP testing center to take the final exam. Students who pass eight exams even have the potential opportunity to bypass their entire freshman year of college. (One caveat: not all universities accept CLEP results, so make sure your student’s chosen school is a participating institution before exploring this option). 

6. Choose an affordable school

Choosing the right school is a huge decision, and affordability isn’t your typical teen’s highest priority. That’s why it’s important for your child to understand that just because an elite private school has a high price tag, that doesn’t automatically mean it will provide them with the best education or experience.

In fact, public schools have some significant advantages over private schools, such as a wider array of academic options, greater diversity of the student population, larger athletic programs, and more on-campus employment options.

7. Encourage your college student to pitch in

Paying for college doesn’t have to rest completely on your shoulders. After all, the expense of a college education is so much more than tuition, room, and board. For many teens, college will be their first real foray into the world of personal finance, and a chance to learn how to budget for recurring expenses like textbooks, meals, and transportation. So if cash flow is tight, encourage your college student to get a part-time job.

There are numerous on- and off-campus jobs available to students that can help them stay afloat financially without taking too much time away from their studies. Tutoring, dog walking, babysitting, and serving as a barista or bartender are just a few of the many options. Some employers such as Disney, Starbucks, and Chipotle even offer tuition reimbursement plans.

8. Consider off-campus housing

Depending on where your child goes to school, living off campus could potentially save you thousands of dollars in room and board. According to a recent study by Trulia comparing on- and off-campus housing prices in 48 of America’s biggest college towns, living off campus was either the same price or cheaper than living on campus. If your student is attending college in one of these towns, it’s worth exploring off-campus housing to see if it will save your family money.

If your child is attending college in or near the city or town where your family lives, the most affordable “off-campus housing” is obviously going to be your family home. Though there are certainly downsides to this option—namely your child’s independence and your chance for an empty nest—the amount of money you’ll save on rent, plane fare, food, laundry, and other household amenities is hard to ignore.

Plus, there’s one more huge potential upshot to having your college student live at home: the money you and your student save on room and board now may mean they don’t have to move back home after college.

 

How to Afford College When You’ve Got Time

9. Open a college savings rewards card

There are now a number of credit cards designed exclusively to help parents save money for college by offering cash-back rewards on purchases that can be directly deposited into a 529 savings account.

If you decide not to invest in a 529 plan, you can still use virtually any rewards card to save money for college. All you need to do is redeem your rewards and then deposit them directly into your chosen savings plan.

10. Enlist your community

How often do those birthday checks from the grandparents actually wind up making it into your teen’s college fund? If you’ve opted for the 529 plan, family and friends can contribute money directly toward your child’s higher education whenever they like thanks to college gift registries like GiftofCollege and Ugift529.

Whether the gift is meant to celebrate a specific event such as your child’s first birthday or high school graduation, or simply a lump-sum donation to help you meet your savings goals, college gift registries offer an easy, modern way to let loved ones help you and your family pay for your children’s education.

11. Save strategically

Like any other investment, the more care and attention you pay to your college savings strategies, the more likely you are to reap the benefits.

For example, many experts recommend starting out with an aggressive investment strategy when your child is still young so you can benefit from an increased return on your investments but still have time to recover from losses. Then, when your child is a few years away from college, you can switch to a more conservative strategy to lower your risk and be better positioned to sell at a market high.

Just remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to the stock market, so make sure to consult an investment advisor before moving forward with a particular strategy.

 

Finding the right mix

When it comes to paying for college, one size does not fit all. You’ll probably need to use a mix of the above methods to devise a game plan that works best for your family and your finances. But now that you’re aware of some of the most effective long- and short-term strategies, you’ll be well-equipped to meet the challenges you encounter along the way and be truly prepared when orientation day arrives.