Some years ago, there was a TV commercial for an auto garage, the slug line: “you can pay me now or pay me later.” The idea is to spend a little now on maintenance or much more for future repairs.
The same philosophy applies to college planning for your child. You can start early and invest a small amount of time and money on a regular basis over time or face a substantial financial and personal burden should you procrastinate.
As a parent, what should you be doing and when? The attached chart provides the answer through the timeline at the bottom of the chart which tracks the age of the child.
Your first concern should be setting up a savings program. Do not be distracted by traditional college savings calculators. Determine what you can reasonably fit in your family’s budget. You do not have to save the total cost of college; but do something. 529 Plans may not be the right answer. Talk to your financial advisor about other options for investing for college such as a Roth IRA or a super-funded whole life insurance policy.
As your child grows, incorporate engaging activities in their play that will promote academic growth. Young children learn through play. Make it fun. Preschool should be considered for a 3- year old. The socialization and learning experiences are invaluable in preparation for kindergarten and beyond.
Elementary school is a great time to encourage participating in activities that will allow them to explore and discover, as well as, learn to be a good steward of their community. The more they experience, the better prepared they will be to make decisions about high school and college. Volunteering to help local charities through school or church-sponsored events plants the seed for stewardship and community service. Lead by example. Participating with your child will have a positive impact on mom and dad as well. Make it a family initiative.
Upon graduation from middle school, many students who attend public schools are being asked to make decisions about high school that could affect the rest of their academic life. Do they apply for a specialty center, or pursue Career and Technical Education? How does a family assist their 8th grader in making such an important decision? Assumptions, presumptions, suggestions from the middle school counselor based on their limited knowledge of your child, is the norm. This less than scientific approach is where an interest and aptitude assessment would come in handy to help determine what academic direction is most appropriate. You may not hit the bulls eye, but you can keep from making the big mistakes.
If all your efforts to help your child grow academically and personally prove fruitful, then it’s time upon entering high school to start building their resume to bolster their future college applications. What extracurricular activities are they involved in? Are they taking the right courses to support their college plans?
Then there is the question of SAT and ACT testing. Do they need tutoring assistance? It’s hard to measure until they take that first PSAT. Have they scored high enough to support their college goals? Their college plans – how do you figure that out? The right academic path, the right school; is the cost of that education going to deliver the return you and your child anticipate? What did the assessment taken in middle school tell you? What career is appropriate, and will it deliver the lifestyle desired? What colleges and universities provide the education and training to earn a degree that will facilitate securing a job in that desired field? Which of those schools provide the environment that is right for your student? Will they thrive there and do well academically because the campus delivers the support and activities the student wants and needs to be happy? Then last is the cost.
This screening and planning process should start in the sophomore year of high school. As parents, you need to understand how the admissions and the financial aid process works and how to manage it. There is a lot of learning to do and research to have your student ready to hit the ground running come Fall of their senior year of high school.
The moral to the story is demonstrated visually in the graph. When your child is young, the options for planning financially and helping your child to develop personally and academically are vast. Your need for specific and critical college information is slight. As your child nears college years, they have developed the characteristics and academic acumen they will have the rest of their lives. Your options to invest further or help your child fades quickly. Your need to understand college admissions and financial aid spikes.
It’s Interesting to note the two lines intersect in middle school. That’s where the conversation needs to begin.