If you’re a parent, worrying about how to pay for college begins as soon as your child is born. What kind of savings account should you open? How much can you afford to set aside each month? Will it all be enough by the time your child graduates from high school?
The rising cost of college is outpacing families’ earnings. Between 2000 and 2018, the average family income in the U.S. rose by 5%, while just between 2010 and 2020, the average cost of attending a private, nonprofit four-year college rose by 18%.
On June 30, the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, which would have erased up to $20,000 of debt for more than 40 million borrowers. There is no other relief plan on the horizon yet for families hoping to reduce the burden of their educational debt, nor is there a plan to lower tuition, so most of us are going to have to find a way to cover costs within the system as it now exists.
Without an unexpected windfall, or your child being awarded a coveted full-ride scholarship, the reality is that most families will use a combination of savings, earnings and loans to cover all the costs of a college education. There’s not a magic formula that makes it all easily affordable, but by adjusting some of the variables at play, you may be able to come up with a plan that works for your family.
With the goal of keeping costs manageable, here are some things that experts suggest you keep in mind.
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Start saving as soon as possible.
The longer your money has the chance to grow, the less you will have to set aside to begin with. “My husband and I added a little bit to 529s even before our kids were born — we opened them and put ourselves as the beneficiaries in the meantime,” financial advisor Shang Saavedra of Save My Cents told HuffPost. There are calculators available online that can help you figure out how much you will need to set aside each month to reach your goal.
There are also a number of options when it comes to opening up a college savings accounts.
529 accounts are a popular option. “The money grows tax free and can be used tax-free on qualified education for your children,” explained Saavedra. Money that you put aside for your child in a 529 “is counted less heavily (at 5.64%) as an asset against the Expected Family Contribution when it comes to applying for needs-based financial aid,” she continued. This means that for every $10,000 you have in a 529, your expected family contribution only goes up by $564.
The main drawback of a 529 is that if you need to take out money for a non-qualified expense (for example, if your child decides not to go to college, or you set aside more money that they end up needing), you’ll be hit with a 10% penalty plus taxes, “which can be significant,” Saavedra said.
Most states have 529 programs, although you are under no obligation to open the account in your state of residence. Just keep in mind that if the plan has state income tax breaks, they may only apply if you live there. You can also open up 529 plans in multiple states, which might be something to consider if you move.
If they are available to you in your community, child savings accounts (CSAs) can be an excellent resource. “Oftentimes, those come with some kind of matching component from the community through either workforce, or block development grants or different things,” said MorraLee Keller, senior director of strategic planning at the National College Attainment Network, an organization working to expand college access.
For example, eligible New York City public school children (regardless of immigration status) are automatically enrolled in the NYC Kids Rise program, which starts a 529 account for them with an initial $100 allocation and allows families to grow the account by earning rewards through the program. Community organizations and other entities can also make deposits into the account, although parents cannot, so you might want to set up an additional 529 to make your own deposits.
Another option is to use your own taxable brokerage account. With this type of account, “you control the money fully, and you can access it at any time to provide for your kids (or for any purpose really),” said Saavedra. But there won’t be any tax savings, and you may owe capital gains taxes. Money in these funds will be credited like a 529 when your child is applying for financial aid.
You can also open a taxable brokerage account (a UTMA or UGMA) on behalf of your child and enjoy the same level of control over the money, but you likewise may need to pay capital gains taxes on them. Money held in these kinds of accounts will count more heavily than a 529 (at 20%) when it comes to determining need-based financial aid. For every $10,000 your child has in a UTMA or UGMA, your expected family contribution will go up by $2,000.
While most people associate Roth IRAs with retirement, you can also open this kind of account in your child’s name for their college savings. The catch is that this will only work if your child earns their own income. Contributions can’t top more than what your child earns in a given year, but there are a couple of significant advantages. “You can make withdrawals from the Roth IRA to use on qualified educational expenses and not incur any early withdrawal penalty, and because it is a Roth IRA, the money grows tax-free,” explained Saavedra. Also, it won’t count against the Expected Family Contribution when it comes time to apply for financial aid — though withdrawals will count as untaxed income, which could lower your financial aid package in subsequent years.
Of course, you can always use a regular savings account set up at your local bank, although because the money won’t earn as much interest, this isn’t usually the option that families choose.
If your employer offers a tuition benefit for dependents, which is not common, you should definitely take advantage of it.
Keep financial fit in mind when making your college list.
In addition to thinking about what kind of environment your child is looking for and what they plan to major in, Keller said that families should ask, “Is there a financial fit associated with the student’s choices? Families need to be doing their homework, looking at costs.” She recommended using the net price calculator that all colleges are required to have on their websites, which will allow you to get a sense of what your financial aid package would look like there.
On the same note, it may be worth considering a local college that would allow your child to live at home and be a commuter student. For “four-year public institutions in most states, the cost of on-campus housing now well exceeds tuition,” said Keller. “The bulk of your expenses may be about having your child live there.” Eating and sleeping at home could cut these costs in half. This savings would be significantly less for private institutions, which charge much more in tuition.
Consider alternate pathways to a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish your degree,” said Keller.
One way to save a significant amount of money is for your child to start their college career at a two-year community college and transfer in their third year to a four-year program. Average yearly tuition at a community college is less than half that of a four-year public institution, and only a tenth of what you would pay at a private four-year institution.
Keep in mind, however, that community college students are more likely to be low-income and juggling family and work obligations, all of which leads to much lower graduation rates. On average, only 13% of students complete community college programs in two years, although this rate goes up to 28% after four years. Seeing peers take leaves or drop out can impact a student’s morale.
Dual-enrollment programs, in which high school students can earn college credits, are another option that can shorten students’ time in school and save money on tuition.
Search for scholarships.
There are many scholarships available to students, particularly those headed into their first year of college. Advisors can recommend scholarships that they think a student should apply for, and should know what scholarships are available in the community.
Keller advises students to “think about how big the applicant pool is.” Your odds of winning a local scholarship are generally much higher than a national one.
Maximize your financial aid.
Make sure to file your FAFSA on time, and take advantage of any free help available, such as from a local college access organization, to make sure you are filling it out correctly.
By meeting deadlines, students “ensure that they get the maximum amount of aid that they are eligible for,” said Keller.
It’s worth noting that this year, because of legislative changes, the FAFSA application will open on a yet-to-be-determined day in December instead of the usual date of Oct. 1. The form promises to be simplified, but the date change does throw into doubt some of the college timeline, such as early decision admissions, for the class of 2024. Ask your child’s college advisor to keep you up-to-date on this development.
Only take out a parent loan as a last resort.
Taking out a private loan from a bank in order to pay for your child’s college tuition is a sort of worst-case scenario, financially. Ideally, you want to cover all expenses using savings, your own earnings (your family contribution), your child’s earnings (often from a work-study job), and federal loans that your child takes out — and won’t have to begin paying back until after they graduate.
If all of these combined still aren’t enough to cover costs, some families consider a PLUS loan, which are federal loans families can take out to cover college costs for dependent students. But the burden of these adds up quickly.
“For parents who borrow, their repayment begins 60 days after the second disbursement of the freshman year,” usually in March, explained Keller. “Each year when you borrow, that loan payment is gonna keep jumping up, because now you have a new balance.”
If your student attends an elite private college, you can easily have the equivalent of a second mortgage on your hands a few years in.
For families who own their homes, home equity loans are generally a better option.
Don’t neglect your own retirement savings.
We often expect parents to sacrifice for their children, but putting college savings ahead of retirement savings isn’t usually a good idea, Saavedra believes. Counting on your children to fund your retirement is a gamble. They may not have the income to do this, especially right after they graduate.
“I’ve calculated that oftentimes it makes more sense for parents to save more for themselves, and then they can gift more out of their estate as they get older, to their adult children, once their assets have had more time to grow and appreciate,” she said, noting that while you’ll have some 20-40 years to save for retirement, you usually only have 18 to save for college.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name for the National College Attainment Network.