18 financial steps to take to prepare your high school senior for college

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If you’re a parent and college is on the horizon, you may be stressed about a lot of things. Your baby will soon be leaving home. You don’t feel like you’ve saved enough to cover tuition. You’re not sure if your family will qualify for financial aid.

You’re not alone. According to the College Board’s Parent Worry Index, the top 10 worries among parents who will soon have kids in college are:

  1. The cost of college
  2. Whether the school is a good match for their student
  3. Finding scholarships
  4. Student loan debt
  5. The SAT & ACT
  6. Campus safety
  7. Admissions options
  8. Newfound independence
  9. The application process
  10. Financial aid

Americans on average are saving a bit over $5,000 each year toward their child’s education when the average total cost of college is $35,720 per year, according to recent statistics compiled by EducationData.org.

And ouch: When considering student loan interest and loss of income, the cost of a bachelor’s degree may exceed $400,000, EducationData researchers found.

The data makes it clear why many parents and students are stressed about this big life transition. But there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for college.

This guide could help. It’s broken down into four categories:

  1. Paying for college
  2. Helping your student find the right fit
  3. Helping them choose the right major
  4. Helping them handle their own finances

Related: Applying for no-interest student loans

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Paying for College

It’s probably going to be expensive, but there are some things you can consider to reduce the costs.

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1. Understand Total Costs

Each college’s estimated cost of attendance for an academic year includes everything from tuition and fees to books, supplies, transportation, miscellaneous personal expenses, and room and board.

Contacting the financial aid offices at the schools your student is considering, or checking their web pages, to get the cost of attendance could help you plan for these upcoming expenses.

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2. Consider Community College, At Least to Start

Most community colleges are significantly less expensive than four-year colleges. Getting a two-year degree, or even just completing intro-level classes at a community college can dramatically reduce the total cost of a college education.

Some states even offer free tuition to qualifying students.

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3. Seek Financial Aid

Even if you’ve saved money for your child’s education, your student could still qualify for federal, state, and private grants and scholarships. You can start the process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

You may also want to check out all the ways you can get free money for college.

The deadline to submit the FAFSA is state-specific, but the earlier you complete the form, the better. The form is available Oct. 1 for the next school year; you could submit college admission and federal aid applications at the same time.

You probably know about federal student loans and may have heard of federal Parent PLUS Loans and private parent student loans.

Private lenders issue private student loans. These loans don’t come with the benefits and protections that federal student loans have, like income-driven repayment plans and federal deferment, but they may help bridge funding gaps.

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4. Broadcast That You’re Scholarship Hunting

Perhaps your neighbor’s employer has an annual scholarship. Or maybe the organizations and clubs you’re involved with have scholarships. Family members and friends might be able to help you find college money you didn’t know was out there otherwise.

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5. Focus on the Right Scholarships

Helping your student focus on applying for merit scholarships surrounding subjects that don’t bore them can be key. If scholarships that accept video submissions are their jam, you can help them narrow their search to just those types of scholarships.

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6. Know the Scholarship Deadlines

There’s a lot going on at the end of high school, so it’s easy to let deadlines slip by if you aren’t paying attention. You wouldn’t want your student to put a lot of effort into a scholarship you know they would be perfect for, only to realize that the deadline has passed. That’s why helping your student follow instructions by looking for deadlines you can feasibly hit can be an important part of the process.

Some scholarship committees want a physical submission via snail mail. You might want to check to see if the submission needs to be postmarked by that date or if it needs to be received by then.

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7. Your Student Could Place Out of Intro College Courses

Advanced Placement and College-Level Examination Program tests can give your student the chance to place out of some classes in which they may already have advanced knowledge.

Reducing the number of credit hours required to graduate can result in significant savings, especially if your student can get credits for a full semester of classes.

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8. Your Student Can Take SAT or ACT Prep Courses

The better your student does on admissions exams, the better their chances of getting merit scholarships and grants. Of course, these courses can be expensive, but they have been shown to help students with test-taking strategies.

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9. Tap Home Equity?

If your family has significant debt, you may not be in a position to liquidate any of your assets. But if you own a home and can do a cash-out refinance, you can potentially find significant funds to help your student cover college costs.

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Helping Your Student Find the Right Fit

Finding the right school is obviously about more than the majors offered at a particular institution. Location can play an important role in choosing a college, especially for students who don’t want to be too far from home or prefer not to pay out-of-state tuition.

Here are some things you may want to consider.

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10. Is a Public or Private University a Better Fit?

Public universities typically are heavily subsidized by government funding, meaning tuition costs are usually lower. While the cost of attendance may be lower, that may not be enough reason to attend a public school, particularly for students looking for the prestige that some private institutions provide – or specialized instruction such as religious affiliation.

Public universities also tend to be larger than private universities, which could prove challenging for some students.

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11. Which College Offers the Best Program for Your Student’s Career Goals?

If money and location are not issues, it can make sense for a lot of families to choose the school that has the best degree program for a student’s particular interests.Here’s a handy guide for preparing for college decision day.

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Helping Them Choose the Right Major

Choosing a major right away isn’t absolutely necessary, but having a trajectory for both studies and a career can ultimately result in cost savings by helping your student avoid taking unnecessary courses, getting bored, or even flunking out.

Here are some tips for figuring it all out.

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12. Are Earnings Important for Your Student?

If a big consideration of what career path to choose is potential earnings, it can be smart to compare average starting salaries in particular fields along with the associated costs of getting a degree that supports that area of work.

Will graduate school be necessary? What are those associated costs?

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13. Will Paying Back Student Loans Be a Burden?

If your student is passionate about a field of study that does not come with a high enough salary to pay back student loans (for example, teaching or some areas of nonprofit work), they could look into student loan forgiveness.

It can be worth researching what types of forgiveness programs may be available in their chosen line of work.

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14. Ultimately, It’s About Happiness & Satisfaction

Picking the right major often comes down to what will make your student happy in their working life, not the money they will earn. Schools don’t usually require declaration of a major until the end of the sophomore year, so there’s time to choose the right major.

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Helping Your Student Handle Finances

Perhaps you’ve already taught your student some of the basics of personal finance — how to handle a checking account, how to responsibly use a credit card, and how to save for long- and short-term needs and wants.

If not, here are some tips to help ensure they don’t burn through their money as soon as they’re away at school.

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15. Help Them Save, Save, Save

Scholarships and federal aid may help cover tuition, but they don’t cover your student’s entertainment or spring break activities. If they currently have a part-time job, they could start socking away a portion of their paycheck into a separate cash management account if they aren’t already.

Even if it’s just $20 per paycheck, it could add up over the next year so they’ll have some money to start college.

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16. Help Them Continue to Save

If your child is relying on student loans to help pay for tuition, fees and other expenses, having some savings built up can help ensure they keep up with student loan repayments when they begin.

There are plenty of ways to cut costs in college, and continuing to put those savings in a cash management account can help them prepare for the future.

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17. Getting Their Own Credit Card

You probably know that not all credit cards are equal, especially when it comes to credit cards aimed at college students. If your student is already an authorized user on one of your credit cards, they may have established enough credit history to qualify for one on their own. Or you could co-sign to help them get a credit card in their own name if they don’t.

Regardless, building credit early on can help them improve their overall credit scores, especially if you help guide them in the ways to use them responsibly.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

18. Some Separation Anxiety Is OK

When the day to move to campus arrives, both you and your student may have mixed emotions. It’s totally OK to feel a little stressed or overwhelmed.

Try to savor the moment, and if your student winds up feeling homesick at college, it could be cured with a video chat with loved ones back home.

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The Takeaway

You can help your high school senior prepare for college by finding ways to pay for it all, guiding your student toward the best-fitting school and major, and nudging your child to manage money.

If the federal aid package you’re offered doesn’t cover all of the costs of shepherding a young person through the college gauntlet, private student loans may bridge the gap.

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Constance Brinkley-Badgett

Constance Brinkley-Badgett is MediaFeed’s executive editor. She has more than 20 years of experience in digital, broadcast and print journalism, as well as several years of agency experience in content marketing. She has served as a digital producer at NBC Nightly News, Senior Producer at CNBC, Managing Editor at ICF Next, and as a tax reporter at Bloomberg BNA.