Paycheck Chronicles

The Time To Start Thinking About College Is Now

I thought about doing a "2017 round-up" type post today, but something else caught my brain.

With two kids in college, and two possibly headed there in the next 2 years, I spend a lot of time thinking about paying for college.To support that goal, I also belong to several "paying for college" Facebook groups. There's a lot of useful information there, and also a good amount of annoying behavior. There are two basic types of annoying posts. One goes something like,  "My child has a 7.8 GPA, has taken 94 AP classes, plays 9 varsity sports, conducts the local orchestra, has cured cancer, and helps old ladies cross the road but didn't get into Harvard!"  (This is obviously an exaggeration.) The second is an announcement of the family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that has been determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), with the explanation that they don't have one cent available to pay for college and how can they possibly be expected to pay anything?

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand that many families are very much struggling. And I also understand that it would be nice if higher education weren't so expensive, and I personally know that the EFC is almost always much higher than a family might feel like they can pay. I also know that it is unrealistic to think that college is going to be free. Even if you have the most amazing child, the chances of them receiving a truly free college education is very, very low.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

The time to realize that you'll have to pay for your child's college is not after you've filled out the FAFSA and your child has been accepted to and received financial aid packages from college.

The time to start thinking about how you'll pay for college is now, regardless of whether your child is 1 or 11 or 17.

I truly understand how hard this is.  As I said, we have two kids in college right now. I'm very thankful that one goes to the local community college (for now) and one has received a relatively significant amount of financial aid from her school and the Florida Bright Futures program. Even so, we're spending about $15,000 a year on college costs right now, and that number will increase as the next two head to school and the one at community college moves to a four-year school.

And, to be honest, we didn't prepare for this as well as we should have. We put some money into Coverdell educational savings accounts when the kids were small, but we didn't make a strong or prolonged effort to accumulate any significant college savings. This was intentional, as I believe that retirement savings is more important than college savings, but we could have done better.

So, learn from me.  If you're not facing college right now, take some time to think about how you're going to pay for it. Look up the cost of your local community college, a state school, and a cool-but-expensive private school. Then do a little research into how much financial aid most folks *actually* get. (It is less than you think, and if you are in the military, you're making more than a lot of your financial aid competition.) Start putting together some ideas about how you're going to pay for it, and communicate this information to your kids so you're not faced with "my kid got into their super-expensive dream school and we can't afford to pay for it." Because that's an awful situation.

Your future self says "thank you."  

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