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Preparing Your Children, and your Wallet, for College... Sure-Fire Strategies to Lessen the Financial Pain

06/02/2015 08:25 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016

You just can't rush into some things or leave them to chance. Preparing your son or daughter for college is one of them.

The cost of a college education is soaring, and the average student loan debt of recent graduates is approaching $30,000, according to a 2014 U.S. News & World Report study. That cost is daunting, but giving up on college isn't the answer because that college diploma is extremely valuable. A 2014 study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York revealed that the value of a college degree has reached an all-time high: $300,000. That amount reflects the extra wages a person can expect to earn with a college degree compared with the average wage of someone who has only a high school diploma, added up over a career of more than forty years.

So what is the answer?

Early Preparation

As is the case in most life situations, starting early is the key. If you begin saving money for college years before it's time for your child to enroll (starting when he or she is born!), it can make those college expenses more manageable. You'll need to save not just for the obvious costs like tuition and room and board, but also for the associated costs of attending college. Those include books, commuting or airline costs for your child and the rest of your family for holidays, living expenses, dorm room or apartment supplies, renter's insurance, a meal plan and other food costs, and special-interest trips or events the school doesn't cover.

Here are three techniques for preparing your son or daughter for college. Do the first two while your children are still in high school and the third one when they get to college:

1. Conduct family meetings with your pre-teen or teenager to discuss how he or she will help shoulder the costs. Discussing options for how the student will be able to contribute to his or her college expenses can result in two benefits. Not only will the financial impact to the overall family decrease, but it also ensures that he or she has "skin in the game." A more invested student is likely to be a more successful student.
2. Have your teenager get a part-time job in a local business. You can also encourage him or her to ask neighbors if they need help mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting, hauling away trash, running errands, tutoring younger children or babysitting. Again, this strategy has a double benefit. Not only will your child earn money for college; he or she will also learn valuable skills -- including communication, self-promotion and time management --that can make him or her more competitive in the job market upon graduation.

3. Have your teen apply for the college or university's work-study programs, as well as internships and co-ops to defray expenses. These are programs that are designed to be flexible so that students can juggle class and study time with work time:

a. The Federal Work-Study Program offers students paid positions either on or off campus. Approximately 3,400 postsecondary institutions offer work-study positions.
b. An internship allows a student to work in a real-world setting in a field he or she is interested in pursuing as a career. Many companies end up hiring their interns full time after the students graduate from college. Check out websites like internshipprograms.com, where you can search internships by employer, field, date and location; and internmatch.com, where you can search for 50,000 internships.
c. A co-op is a supervised internship or practicum that alternates a period of study with a period of work in the student's field of study. Institutions such as Drexel University in Philadelphia and Northeastern University in Boston offer co-ops around the globe, providing students with hands on experience to complement their course work.

The Most Important Step

But by far, the most important other step in college prep is to help your child enter the college application process with a unique advantage:

1. Encourage your son or daughter to develop a unique skill that will make him or her a more appealing candidate to the colleges of his or her choice. Often, a unique proficiency such as playing the oboe or violin or being active on the fencing team catches the attention of college admission boards who need these types of students for their sports teams, musical or performing arts groups.
2. In addition to your child developing a unique skill, assist them in getting the highest possible score on the ACT and SAT exams in high school. The ACT is a curriculum-based exam that includes questions about English, math, reading and science, plus an optional writing section. The SAT is an aptitude test that focuses on vocabulary, reading comprehension, general reasoning and problem-solving skills. Many colleges and universities give high regard to superior test results in the college acceptance process.

Most students take these exams during their junior or senior year in high school. Higher scores can result in merit scholarships that can reduce your personal costs significantly -- even if you make too much for your student to qualify for financial aid.

Tip sheets about preparing for college rarely mention the importance of high ACT and SAT scores, and college counselors rarely mention the benefits, either. But I recently witnessed this phenomenon firsthand with a family who is close to me. Their son had reasonable grades and went to a good high school but wasn't likely to be a competitive candidate for the colleges he applied to. The parents retained a local study group called Huntington Learning Center to help their son prepare for the exams. They spent a modest amount of money, especially relative to college costs. The result? Their son went from being a reasonable candidate who colleges might or might not have chosen to a candidate who not only got accepted to great schools but received offers of significant merit scholarships from five of the eight schools he applied to. And this is a student whose father earns too much money to qualify the son for financial aid.

Because of this family's phenomenal success, I have referred friends and other clients to this type of learning center. Another one of those families has a fifteen-year-old daughter who is a straight-A student but a weak test taker. She enrolled in a test-preparation course, and her scores went up 200 points. Their goal is to help her raise her scores another 300 points before she finishes the course and applies to colleges.

In 2011, an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) made it a requirement for postsecondary schools that participate in Title IV federal student aid programs to post a net price calculator on their websites. The calculator helps families estimate the cost of attendance at an institution based on what similar students paid in a previous year. Try this: Enter your child's full profile on some of those schools' websites, then change his or her SAT or ACT score and watch the scholarship offers increase.

Additional Techniques to Help your Teens Raise their Exam Scores

Clearly, helping your son or daughter get higher ACT and SAT scores is a step worth taking. Here are examples of test-prep resources to consider:

• You can buy self-guided SAT study tools like books and software for $10 to $50. The College Board's publication titled The Official SAT Study Guide costs $22. You'll get 10 official practice tests, including three recently administered tests; practice essay questions; and free online score reports.
• Software programs designed for ACT and SAT preparation range from $50 to $600.
• Companies like Kaplan Test Prep offer several levels of tutoring ranging from $300 to $3,500 and allow you to pay in installments. The tutoring is done in your home or online with a certified tutor. Many similar programs exist.
• You can hire a private tutor to work with your child for approximately $35 to $150 an hour.

When your son or daughter turns 14 or 15, make sure you follow these important steps and find an ACT or SAT prep course in your area, enroll your son or daughter and then watch the offers for merit scholarships pour in. They can offset your college expenses by tens of thousands of dollars.