College Planning from a Parent

by Mark Ackerman
(Moultrie, GA)

Planning for college as a parent seems to be an overwhelming task. Especially if you student has a long time before college. Fortunately if you are lucky enough to be looking at many years before you ship off your future president you have a lot of cheap options that you won’t as your student gets closer to that date.

The first thing that anyone thinks about when the C word is used is $$$. Will it be $ or $$ or $$$? The obvious answer is $$$ so you need to begin thinking about it as early as you can. In today’s market setting it up the moment you reach over and feel that first kick might seem a bit late but never fear there are opportunities even if your young scientist is graduating this May assuming you get to work planning for it right now.

The earliest thing any parent should do, and most don’t, is set up a college 529 plan or similar savings vehicle. This could be done as early as the child’s birthday (as in day of birth) and should include an automatic mechanism for contribution. I know it is hard to let any income go when you are just starting out but if you can just go ahead and deduct it before you see your check it is easier than trying to pull it out every week when you have bills coming in. Ask your employer if a small contribution to the 529 can be deducted each week same as your 401K. You might balk at the idea of something as low as 1 dollar a day into that 529 plan but if you started it at birth those 365 dollars a year would balloon into the neighborhood to $10,000 if nobody contributed another dime. That is where grandparents if available are great assets. Give them the name of your financial advisor and you may find an occasional contribution to bulk up the value. Of course time is everything and makeup time is money. There are tax advantages to a 529 also like earnings are tax free and withdrawals for college expenses are tax free. Talk to a financial advisor for the limitations and advantages but by all means get a plan for your child.

Scholarships are the 2nd thing a parent needs to be aware of and opportunities occur throughout the child’s life. You may not like the Toddler Tiara scene but if there is a contest for your 5 year old with a scholarship attached don’t hesitate to grab a dress and teach her to sing the star spangled banner. You don’t have to follow the entire industry just go for the prize. Science, social studies, writing and similar fairs are huge for obtaining scholarships for your young ones. Before each school year and at least one semester Google the contests available for your child’s age group and see what projects he can work on for that year that can snag some scholarship money. Grade school is the best time get involved in these contest because not only is there a possible financial reward but it sets up your child for a lifetime of involvement and involvement = success.

If you are looking at a senior year and you did nothing up to now you have far more limited options but don’t be discouraged. Go to the guidance counselor as early as possible and get information on all the available scholarships for high school seniors and get to work. You goofed off long enough now you have a lot of makeup work to do. Get on the internet too. There are many great websites posting scholarships and your new 2nd job will be to snag everything you can. What you don’t snag you have to borrow so there is no time to waste.

SAT/ACT preparation. Enough Said. If your student fails to score high enough she won’t be going to the school she wants. Check the needed numbers with the school before you sign her up so she knows what she needs. If you are a gambler or just have a lot of money to throw around skip the prep and write the checks because your Nuclear Physics Major probably won’t pass the test high enough on the first try. She can certainly try again and again but expect writer’s cramp from all the checks you will be signing. Buy the books twist an arm or two. It is cheaper in the long run.

If you have a senior or undergraduate I cannot stress enough that tax day is in
January if at all possible. As soon as you get those W2’s get down to the tax office and get those returns done and get started on the FAFSA. You will not know your financial aid numbers until you do and many of the best scholarships are waiting for that information. Wait until April at your peril. You don’t want to be sitting there in August wondering if your aid is going to be processed in time for Susie to sit down in class. You should also be aware that if you don’t pay in full by the deadline that those classes she wants reopen to the first person who grabs them up. Susie may end up still attending but unable to get a schedule that meets her needs.

Don’t put off Orientation. Colleges schedule these for several weeks during the summer and your freshman probably can’t schedule classes until orientation day. It is tempting to wait for a later date but what they don’t tell you is that classes are being scheduled at orientation and it is first come first served. If you wait until the last Saturday orientation don’t be surprised when you Johnny comes back from the class scheduling session crying because he couldn’t get the classes he needs or he has back to back classes scheduled over the top of the supper schedule every night making it impossible for him to eat at the cafeteria. How much did you pay for that meal plan again? How much will it cost to feed him for a semester on top of that meal plan you had to buy but can’t use? Speaking of meal plans no matter how much they insist always take the all you can eat option. Your son will look at the flex account with dollar signs and chicken nuggets in his eyes but those run out fast. Check the prices of the restaurants on campus and figure out how many times Johnny can eat with them. It becomes a no brainer to give him unlimited cafeteria access with fewer flex $$.

School supplies are a much bigger issue for that first freshman move in. Expect to pay 5 or 6 hundred dollars just to get her moved in and settled. I don’t know about you but that is a huge chuck for me at any one time. Nobody says though that you have to buy everything up front. Sales come and go all year long. Get a list from the college of recommended items. Take note of any banned items like flammables, wireless routers, refrigerators over 3.6 cubic feet or microwaves over 700 watts. You need to know the limits for the campus before you buy but no law says you can’t buy the refrigerator in January, the microwave on Black Friday and the XL Twin bedding in May. Make sure you test all electrical equipment before you store it but once tested it should be good to go for fall. Again take note of your budding painter’s educational choice early as possible. Some subjects cost more in supplies. Art students can run through hundreds of dollars in extras. If you know what the major is going to be check with the department to see what kind of supplies are most likely to be needed. If the drawing instructor says all art students will be expected to buy certain quality and or name brand pads, pencils, pens, paint etc. it is a good thing to know in advance so you can shop at your leisure instead of a last minute trip to the art supply store on move in day and a second or third trip the next 2 weekends to get the rest.

There are a lot of considerations and planning when sending your student to college and I wish you well in navigating that maze. Like any good maze though the reward at the end is worth the effort.

Read more College Planning Tips from other students and parents who have been through process.

Comment from your friendly team at College Financial Aid Advice

Thank you Mark for some great college planning tips for parents and students. College is a big investment so it deserves a lot of consideration. Best of luck to you and your college bound children.

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by Teri Bruce
(Gulf Shores, Alabama)

Searching for scholarships that best fit you can be hard work. It takes time and patience but it can be very worthwhile.

I have two daughters that are 15 years apart. My oldest daughter attended a four-year college and she received a degree in Nursing (RN). My youngest daughter is a senior in high school and applying to colleges that she wants to attend.

My husband and I have always owned our own business and we did not have a college fund. When my oldest daughter entered high school she knew how important it was to make good grades, be involved in the community, and set goals for her future. I began searching for scholarships and I was amazed at how many there were to apply for!

My advice to parents and students that are about to apply for college is to get on the internet and search for the scholarships that best fit your needs. Apply for all of them. It is time consuming but as I said, very worthwhile.

Another tip is to search locally for the scholarships that are available. Almost all of the clubs in your community (Lions Club, Rotary Club, Women's Clubs,....) offer scholarships. If you have been involved in the community, this will definitely help you obtain scholarships from these clubs.

Talk to the school counselor at your high school. She has tons of resources for you to get started. Make it a priority to search for these scholarships. Put the time and effort into your search and I promise it will pay off!

Read more College Financial Aid Tips from other students and parents who have been through process.

Comment from your friendly team at College Financial Aid Advice

Thank you Teri for sharing your experience searching for scholarships. Sometimes the local scholarships are great choices as there are fewer applicants. Best of luck to you in paying for college for your children.

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