There is much talk these days about the failure of higher education. While it is true that simply graduating with a degree does not guarantee a successful career or certain financial future, most people agree that advanced training or education is an important aspect of career preparedness. As parents and grandparents, we all want the best for our children and grandchildren. But we all know they can have dreams and interests that, admittedly, often concern or befuddle us. Furthermore, high tuition costs, as well as the increasing burden of student loan debt and a changing economy can create much anxiety around the prospect of attending college. Much of the stress can be relieved through proper planning.
Today, college planning involves more than simply opening a 529 account as soon as possible after the child is born. That’s only one side of the equation—the resource side. Today, planners and parents also need to map out costs. To reduce the cost of college, there are three important timeframes to consider: 1. Planning to reduce costs before ever getting to college; 2. Continuing to manage costs while attending college; and 3. Repaying student loans while anticipating lifestyle changes after college. Effective planning of costs starts from the time the student is a freshman in high school. The plan should cover the time until all student loans are paid off. A complete analysis reveals the impact that additional borrowing would have on the overall costs of the education. But there are other important factors that can affect the true cost of education during and after college.
College choice is arguably one of the most critical decisions that a young person will ever face. Most people agree that financial consideration should probably not be the deciding factor for choosing a college, but it certainly should be one of the factors. Frank Hanna in his book, What Your Money Means and How to Use it Well, sets out criteria for determining if attendance at a particular school is a “genuine need” or simply a “beneficial good.” The book is worth reading for any money decision, but he speaks eloquently to this one.
Higher education is big business today. It is always a good idea to realize that colleges compete for talent and many are willing to put money behind attracting the student that fits their need.
More often today, the cost of college is determined by how long it takes to get a degree. One of the most sure-fire ways to reduce the cost of attendance is to graduate on time, or early. Careful planning of curriculum is essential. Even starting college with significant credit toward graduation is possible today by taking college credit courses while still in high school.
Every family should prepare a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when their child is a senior in high school, and each year they’re in college. This is true whether they expect to need additional financial assistance or not. Parents should always gain an understanding of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before the college search gets underway. There are actually two formulas: the Federal method and the Institutional Method. Which one to use depends on which is accepted by a particular college. A good EFC calculator can be found at the website of The College Board. Click here to go there.
It is also recommended that a student take the Federal Direct Stafford Loan each year while an undergraduate. It is not needs-based. If not needed to pay for undergraduate education, setting the money aside could help pay for any post-graduate education expenses. It can also help improve a student’s loan repayment and forgiveness options after graduation. But loans should not be taken without a plan as to how they will be repaid. That often means running projections for ten years, or longer, into the graduate’s career.
Colleges and universities have well-defined requirements for graduation depending on the major. Know what is considered full-time and how many credits a student can take in a semester without additional costs, and how many credits are needed to graduate on time. Students often go with the flow without much thought to how their course load can help them after graduation. Look at course catalogs and major requirements beforehand. Often courses can be used to extend learning and acquire important skills even though they may be from different academic departments or even different universities, while still fulfilling necessary credit requirements.
For many, it is tough to know what they want to do when they grow up. I know some retirees who still aren’t sure. It is important to do some research into your child’s proposed career field. But in our highly specialized world, it is also important to examine other potential opportunities available to him or her, given their interests and strengths. Understanding not just which, but where certain jobs may be in demand, and if there is a wage ceiling in the career or industry, can provide a picture of the costs of living after college, and the impact on student loan payoff. You don’t have to be afraid of debt, or the costs associated with going to college. It is possible to create a strategy for success that will help your family navigate the stress, excitement, and high emotion of college planning. The stakes for failing to plan are high and rising. Begin now.