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Wherever your high school senior is in the college application and admissions process, the start of the new year presents an opportunity for you to more closely consider what’s just around the corner – paying for the educational pursuit that is ultimately decided upon.

Here are a few steps you can take now to be better prepared when college decisions and financial commitments need to be made in the months ahead:

1. Take an inventory of available resources.

Carefully review what you have accumulated to date in your 529 college savings plan and any other types of savings and investment accounts. If you’re aware that others, such as a non-custodial parent, aunts, uncles, or grandparents, have also been saving on your student’s behalf, try to determine what funds will be available through those sources as well. This will give you a fuller picture of available resources and will be tremendously helpful once you have a clear sense of exactly what the total net cost will be at a particular school of choice for your student’s desired degree or certification.

2. Keep saving.

Don’t take your foot off the peddle with respect to continued savings. Remember that costs go well beyond tuition, fees, and room and board. Additional savings in the months leading up to freshman year and in the months that follow can be used for books, supplies, a computer and/or other forms of equipment, as required by the school.

If you’re expecting a tax refund in the coming months or any supplemental income at your job, consider allocating part of that toward the costs you will soon be facing. And don’t forget that friends and extended family can contribute at any time to the 529 account of a future student they love. Birthdays and graduations are perfect occasions for gifts of this sort.

3. Get familiar with aid and scholarship options.

After making certain you and/or your student have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”) and the CSS Profile if your student is pursuing one or more of the schools that require this as well, get up to speed with the types of financial aid that are most typically offered. Take time to learn about the forms of aid that the Federal government offers – including Pell Grants, Federal Work Study and both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans. Additionally, learn about any particular sources of aid that are unique to being a resident of your state or which are unique to the schools to which your student has applied.

Lastly, check with your employer, community organizations, your student’s high school, and with other trusted sources to see whether there are scholarship opportunities that your student would be well-suited to pursue and what the application timeframe is for each.

4. Keep an open mind.

Admissions decisions may not be as you and your student originally envisioned or hoped that they would be. The options ultimately available may differ slightly or significantly from what you had in mind and after financial aid awards are received, you may find that a dream school is simply unaffordable in terms of net cost. That’s why it’s critical to commit now to keeping an open mind and to broadening your perspective when necessary.

Rest assured that options not previously considered as top choices, or at all, may wind up being among the best possible ones in the end. After all, there’s no one path to a rewarding future. Keep in mind, for instance, that there may be value in starting at a lesser-cost or more local institution for the first year or two (provided credits can be transferred to a target school), living at home (versus on campus), or taking a gap year or semester to step back and reconsider options.

5. Stay engaged.

With the start of the new year, you’re getting closer to the finish line. It’s not uncommon at this juncture to feel exhausted from the application and admissions process and/or to become a bit distracted. Keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, however, as you head into the months ahead and encounter final considerations. Your student needs your continued support more than ever and your rational perspective about choosing a school that is a good financial fit. Assuring that reason, versus emotion, guides the final decisions that are made will serve your student and family well for years to come.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.