Despite the lagging economy over the last many years, the cost of college tuition has continued to climb at a blistering pace. While standard inflation hovers around 3% annually, college tuition has increased at twice that rate. Though parents need not be reminded of the increasing costs of college, the fact that the average college senior graduating in Wisconsin owes $24,627 in student loans should not be overlooked. Compounded with the job market, it’s no wonder parents consider exhausting family savings as their only college funding option.
But there is hope, and another way.
First, apply for financial aid. The most common mistake when paying for college is depleting your family’s assets before applying for financial aid. Additionally, before you actually fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid), estimate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and get help to understand how the information you supply on the FAFSA ultimately affects your student’s financial aid eligibility. Submit the FAFSA form (found at www.fafsa.ed.gov/) as early as possible, starting October 1st for current high school seniors and college students. The sooner you apply, the better, even if this means you submit financial “estimates.” This will allow your student to be eligible for federal and state grants, federal loans, and possibly work-study opportunities. Beware; though the FAFSA asks for similar information as a tax return, they are not the same. Over 70% of all submitted FAFSA applications have mistakes on them each year which can result in lost aid eligibility. So talk to a college planning professional to assure accuracy.
Second, become cash-flow efficient. The college funding years are typically the most expensive years in a family’s lifespan, especially if families are sending more than one child to college. Family debt is not considered in the financial aid calculation and could hinder your family’s ability to pay out-of-pocket college costs. Eliminating or restructuring debt, as well as restructuring the way you save for your own retirement are essential to becoming more cash-flow efficient during the college years.
Third, determine your borrowing sources. Options may include government loans, private loans, and loans from life insurance policies. Borrowing from the equity in your home or using your credit cards can be very risky and should be reserved for extreme situations.
Finally, and only after exploring the three options above, consider the use of family savings. But remember, the rule of thumb is: it takes five dollars to replace every one dollar you borrow from your retirement to fund your child’s college education. Of course, the hope is that if you’ve followed through with the aforementioned college funding strategies, while making sound college selection decisions (see below), you won’t have to exhaust family savings. Now, if the budget is still tight, and that 4-year university’s price tag is still a bit too steep, consider the following tips to reduce your family’s out-of-pocket college expenses. Ultimately, despite the growing costs of college, families with college-bound students can still decide to be wise consumers and take taming the costs of college into their own hands.
Begin by encouraging your high school student to participate in a variety of internships, job shadow opportunities, and advanced placement (AP) classes to fine-tune their career interests, reducing the likelihood of switching majors and adding a fifth year of education costs to their resume. For this same reason, actually visiting colleges of interest is vital. Every campus has a unique feel, which a high school student cannot get from merely reading the brochures. Your motto should be: one major, four years, and off the family payroll.
Next, consider encouraging your student to attend a two-year transfer program or even start it while still in high school. After all, it matters more where you finish your degree and less where you start it. Madison College is a great option for Madison area residents, in addition to the youth options program offered to seniors at the high school.
Last, but not least, get help. Attend college financial aid events, talk to college funding professionals, and “do your homework” by researching schools beyond their sticker price. There is always a way to make your child’s dream of a college education come true if you talk to the right people.
In summary, you can protect your family’s savings and navigate the increased expenses of college for your children. Sending our children off to college is still the part of the American Dream—a dream within the reach of many families who properly explore their college funding options.