4 Simple Steps for Parents (and Students!) to Stop Worrying About the High Cost of College

06/03/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016
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Financial optimism is at its highest level since the recession hit in 2008, according to the recent release of the Country Financial Security Index. Even so, Americans are still concerned about the rising cost of a college education. In fact, only 18 percent of Americans are very confident they'll have the money to send their kids to university.

As a parent of a daughter who is going off to college this fall, I know personally how hard it is to sufficiently prepare. Over the years, we did what we could to save for college but in the end, it still doesn't feel like we did enough... and it looks like we aren't the only ones who feel that way.

The average graduate with student loans will leave school in 2015 with $35,000 in debt. That number is the average, which means many will graduate with a much higher balance. Even worse is that the majority of millennials are less than confident that they'll be able to pay back their loans.

If you have a school-aged student (or even one younger), it's never too early to start working with her to create a strategy to decrease the costs associated with college. Ultimately, student loans are a burden that will be carried by your child after graduation -- so make sure she's involved as you work through these steps.

Run the Numbers

The cost of college can vary dramatically based on chosen university, size of aid package and how many years until your child heads off to school (the cost of college has been rising much faster than inflation). CNN Money offers a calculator to determine how much out-of-pocket expenses a family can expect to spend today, based on total annual cost (includes tuition, fees, and room and board) and family income (used to estimate aid).

According to the calculator, an in-state student who chooses University of California, Davis, for example, could expect to spend less than $50,000 for four years, assuming a family income around $40,000. The sticker price for the same school would increase to almost $100,000 if the student's family earns an income around $80,000.

Aid calculators assume that higher income families will contribute a higher amount toward tuition but that's not always the case. In fact, for many students, the added burden is tacked on to their student loan balance. A student can really benefit from understanding what they're signing up for, financially, when they're making a school selection.

If your child is young and you're looking to estimate costs, check out this calculator by, which estimates future costs and offers monthly savings projections.

Create a Mock Post-Graduation Budget

If you really want to drive home the impact of college costs (and even of chosen major!), take the time to create a mock budget for your student. Write down all the bills she's likely to face as a new college graduate (include rent, utilities, car payment, groceries, entertainment (yes, they'll want to go out occasionally!) and -- of course -- student loans.

Next, figure out your student's likely post-graduation salary (you can start with this report by and then her estimated monthly take-home pay (subtract estimated taxes and divide by 12).

Show your student how much of her take-home pay will be spent on each of the bills she listed. Be sure to discuss the impact of the student loans. Let her connect the dots and decide for herself how much the loans are worth it.

Find Ways to Cut Costs

Once your student understands the skin she has in the college game, she'll be more interested in finding ways to cut college costs.

By taking advanced placement (AP) courses in high school, a student can earn college credit and decrease the number of courses she'll have to pay for at the premium university tuition schedule. Some students can even graduate a full year early. That comes with a substantial cost savings!

Spending the first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year university can save a student a huge chunk of change. In most cases, tuition is drastically lower, and many students can cut costs further by living at home while they attend their community school.

Finding scholarship money can dramatically decrease out-of-pocket college expenses. Contrary to popular belief, scholarships aren't just for the top of the class or most athletic. According to, 2015 scholarships were offered to patriotic artists, "The Fountainhead" essayists, and clothing recyclers. You'll be surprised what you can find, once you start searching.

Pick a School You Can Afford

It's tempting to pick the most prestigious school you can but, for many students, that's not always the best strategy (Fast Company recently reported the graduates with highest-paying mid-career earnings. Not one of the Ivies made the list). It's also not always cheapest to go public. Do your own analysis after aid packages are offered and figure out which schools end up being cheapest. Your student may not pick entirely based on price, but it's an important consideration.

My daughter applied to many private and public universities and in the end selected the school she liked the most -- which also happened to offer the most attractive financial package (California Polytechnic State University -- San Luis Obispo). That doesn't always happen, although we are pretty happy it did!

In short, the best way to boost confidence when you're planning to pay for college is to start plotting early. Save as much as you can, but also be open with your student about the costs, discuss options and do a thorough analysis of your possibilities. Research shows that the more thoroughly one plans, the higher the chances for success. Work with your student to start planning today... and increase both of your college cost confidence.

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.