THE BLOG

Last-Minute Advice for Parents Paying for College - Part I

04/25/2015 11:43 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

Four years of homework. Two years of SAT madness. Half a dozen AP classes. And countless hours at volleyball games, debate team competitions, and soup kitchen volunteer work.

And now comes the hard part: high school seniors--and their families--have just a few days left to make some final decisions about selecting the right college.

It ain't easy. Not only is the cost of attending college at an all-time high, but financial aid packages are excessively complex, confusing, and, at times, misleading. It's no wonder a just-released Gallup poll found that the number one financial worry for parents of children under 18 is paying for college-- that's right, college causes parents more anxiety than paying medical bills or having enough money for retirement.

Eager to lend a hand, the President and First Lady convened a summit called the White House Call to Action on College Opportunity last year. They announced hundreds of new initiatives to improve families' access to admissions info--and they asked online answer-man Sal Khan, founder of the popular non-profit site Khan Academy, for help.

Khan's response: to create a series of accessible, smart videos that would help kids from all income levels navigate the college admissions process--from SAT prep to filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to choosing an affordable school option that doesn't require the family to go broke.

When the folks at Khan invited me to help create two videos for their new College Admissions resource, I jumped at the chance. This week I'm sharing Video #1, A Message to Parents on Paying for College, which is a rundown of what parents need to know when their kids are in high school. Take a look at the video and tips, and then post your college cost questions below or ask me on Facebook or Twitter--I know it can be confusing and I'm happy to help!

These tips won't answer every question, for sure. But with U.S. high schools having an average of one college counselor for about every 500 students--and in one in five high schools, there are *no* college counselors at all--the video may be of some help.

Stick with federal student loans.
College grads earn, on average, 80% more than peers without college degrees, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That's a huge premium, and it points to the fact that taking on some debt to finance a degree can be a worthwhile investment. That said, it pays to be practical about student loan debt. Consider future career plans (along with average salaries) and make sure that the amount of loans your kid takes out is reasonable. If possible, stick with Federal Direct student loans, which allow you to borrow up to $5,500 per year for first-year undergrads with interest rates of 4.7% (until 7/1/2015).

Start talking about paying for college in 9th grade or sooner.
Although 48% of teens expect that their parents are going to cover their college tuition, only 16% of parents say they're planning to foot the bill entirely, according to a new Junior Achievement survey. To avoid any misunderstandings, you want to start the conversation about college costs with your child freshman year. Keep it factual, not frantic--the last thing you want to do is make your kid stressed out. And remember: the sooner you have the talk, the more your kids can focus on their grades and begin thinking about where they want to go. Since the vast majority of families don't pay the sticker price, go to the College Cost Calculator on the College Board's website bigfuture.org to get a feel for your family's expected contribution before you broach the topic with your kid. That will help you discuss affordability realistically. And be sure to make it clear to your child that you're in it together!

Fill out that FAFSA no matter how much you earn.
Think your family earns too much for financial aid? You might be surprised. According to a recent National Center for Education Statistics study, 70% of students at private colleges whose families earn between $150,000 and $250,000 receive financial aid; same goes for 20% of students at public schools. So if you're a family with a higher income, you shouldn't ignore financial aid paperwork just because you think you won't qualify. You might be eligible for school grants or lower-cost loans--but you have to fill out the forms to get that money! The most important form you need to know about is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). By filling it out, you're opening the gateway to *all* kinds of financial aid, from money from the federal government to aid from the schools.

Next week I'll be blogging about repaying student loans so check back.

What questions do you have when it comes to figuring out how to afford college? Should future career plans play a role in financial aid decisions? Please share in the comments below or on my Facebook page.

This article was originally published on Mint.com.

This blog post is part of the 'College 101' blog series, curated by the editors of HuffPost Financial Education to provide parents with the best advice for financing their children's college educations. To see all the other posts in the series, click here.

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