Preparing for college can be daunting – here’s a helpful timeline

Preparing for college can be daunting – here’s a helpful timeline

One of the biggest concerns our clients have is how to prepare for their children’s college expenses. We can relate! The parents in our office are acutely aware of rising higher education costs and how much hard work it takes to be financially ready to meet them.

My wife and I are currently helping our 17-year-old twin daughters choose their schools and craft wise college budgets. We’ve learned a lot through this process and from my Sound Stewardship colleagues’ experiences, as well. In order to help our clients—and you!—we’ve put together this College Readiness Timeline. No two plans will be the same, but this step-by-step guide will help you form your family’s best approach to paying for college.

From Birth through 8th Grade:

  • Talk it Over. Parents should be talking about how their own college experiences form their expectations for college funding. Spouses need to be on the same page on whether college is a priority, how much the family will (or can) contribute to its costs, and what defines a successful college experience.
  • Start saving now. Currently, total annual college costs (tuition, fees, room and board) are around $20,000 for in-state public schools, $36,000 for out-of-state public schools and $47,000 for private nonprofit schools. That means four years of college could cost you anywhere from $80,000 to $188,000 today. Higher-ed costs have been increasing at about 5 percent a year. At that rate, a child born this year would be staring down a$48,000 per-year price tag for an in-state public school. In other words, it is never too early to start saving for college. Talk to your financial advisor about your options, including tax-deductible 529 plans.
  • Get on track. Before you help your child sign up for classes in high school, do your research. What does your child need to take academically to be ready for their college experience? Talk to your school counselor, get online, ask questions. For example, our daughters were both aspiring athletes, so we used the NCAA guidelines to help make an academic plan.

Freshman Year of High School:

Fall Semester

  • Get serious. Help your child understand that this is when their GPA starts to matter. Before this, they could not study a lick. Starting now, their grades will have a real impact on their college options.
  • Sign up for “Advanced Placement” courses and “College Credit” classes that better prepare them for the rigors of college academics.

Spring Semester

  • Start the conversation. This is a good time to start to have low-key college conversations. Discuss how you’re preparing to help with college financially and what their high-school responsibilities will be, including maintaining grades, participating in extracurricular activities, preparing for entrance exams, etc.
  • Financial Checkpoint: Track your savings progress toward your goals and adjust accordingly.

Sophomore Year of High School:

Fall Semester

  • Stay on track. Confirm your child is still on track with their academic plan when signing up for classes.
  • Practice. Hopefully, your school provides practice ACT and/or SAT sessions to help your child get comfortable with the college entrance exam format. Embrace these free opportunities to see where you need to improve on these tests.

Spring Semester

  • Continue the conversation. Now is the time to start to talking details. Be clear about what you are prepared to contribute to college costs and what your child will need to do to contribute as well. This will be very different for every family, but here is an example of how my wife and I are structuring our college financial plan. For each child:
    • We are prepared to contribute $XX,000/year per child for up to 4 years.
    • If their school of choice’s total costs (tuition, fees, room and board, transportation, etc.) are more than that, they need to come up with the difference through scholarships and employment—but no student loans. We don’t want them to go into debt.
    • If their scholarships and employment are enough that they don’t need to use the entire $XX,000/year from mom and dad, then they would have some wiggle room for expenses (being able to purchase a used car for transportation, for example) and/or bank the difference for graduate school.
    • For added support, their grandfather is also offering to match whatever they earn through employment each summer, provided they turn in an earnings report. Those funds will go directly to the school for tuition.
    • This plan gives our daughters agency in their college choices, motivates them to earn scholarships and seek employment, while teaching them to make responsible financial decisions.
  • Financial Checkpoint: Does your teenager need to get a part-time job to help with their expenses while you continue to save aggressively for their college?

Junior Year of High School:

Fall Semester

  • Prep for tests. Sign up for ACT and/or SAT prep courses at your school or with private tutors. Aim to get one or two scores under your belt by the end of this semester.
  • Go to Junior Days. More and more colleges are offering visit days specifically for high school juniors. If you have an initial list of possible schools, plug into those opportunities.
  • Keep that GPA up!

Spring Semester

  • Improve that score. Make sure you know what test scores your child needs for acceptance and scholarships at their chosen schools. For out-of-state schools, there seems to be a big jump in tuition discounts for students who score a 28 or above on the ACT. (If you score in the 30s, you might enjoy even more discounts!) Anecdotally, having a GPA of 3.75 and an ACT score of 28 or better will put your child in a good position for scholarships from both in- and out-of-state schools. Paying additional test fees to improve a score can really pay off with thousands of additional dollars in financial aid across 4 years.
  • Visit! By the end of junior year, try to visit all of your child’s prospective schools to help them get a realistic perspective on their choices.
  • Financial Checkpoint: Track your savings progress toward your goals.  How can you improve your cash flow to save even more as needed?  Any debts you could knock out and then apply the freed up dollars toward college funding?

Summer Before Senior Year

  • Start applying. Be aware of application fees, but encourage your child to apply anywhere they are seriously considering going.
  • Research scholarships. Point your child toward scholarship search tools like Scholly, Fastweb and local aggregators. (For example, the Truman Heartland Community Foundation has a wide variety of regional scholarship opportunities.) Start planning and applying to appropriate scholarships.

Senior Year of High School:

Fall Semester

  • Fill out your FAFSA. Required for most school-based, need-based scholarships, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid application window is between October 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020.
  • Put it all together. In order to have the best possible financial package from your child’s chosen school, you should aim to be accepted, have your FAFSA completed, and have scholarships researched and applied for before Christmas Break.  

Spring Semester

  • Give it one last shot. There’s still time to try one more time for a better test score and keep on applying for scholarships as you find them.
  • Free up that cash. Make sure your investment arrangements are dialed down for your short-term needs now. Many 529s are designed to ratchet down their risk profile the closer you get to graduation. You are about to start sending money out to the school; you don’t want to be 100 percent invested in stocks only to have the market crash before their freshman year. Make sure about one year’s worth of college costs is available and in a low risk, interest-bearing position.
  • Celebrate! Enjoy graduation! Consider giving family and friends a code that enables them to give directly to your child’s 529 account as a graduation gift.

Summer Before College Freshman Year

  • Get oriented. Orientations and enrollments generally happen in June.
  • Pay the bill! Be ready to write that first check in July.
  • Financial Checkpoint: Don’t be afraid to share the process of paying bills with your student and review how their college savings resources are looking for the next year and beyond.  Include them!

If you’d like to discuss college funding strategies with Matt Syverson, who sits on the Treasurer’s Advisory Committee for the Kansas Learning Quest 529 Plan, please contact him today.

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