3 Ways High Schoolers Can Start Preparing for College Costs

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As much as they'd like to help out, many parents today are finding it extremely difficult to contribute as much as they'd like to their kids' college educations, and that's putting more of the burden on students to figure out how to afford them.

A recent study from Fidelity Investments showed the dilemma. When asked how much they'd like to pay, parents said on average that they want to save enough to cover almost two-thirds of total college costs. That leaves 35 percent of the total for students to pay, either through tapping their own savings, earning income from work or finding financial aid.

With the average annual cost of tuition and fees alone at private colleges topping $30,000 in the 2013-14 school year, even the prospect of coming up with a third of that -- more than $10,000 annually -- intimidates most students. But Fidelity found that despite their best intentions, parents aren't anywhere close to on track to meet their expectations for their college contributions. According to Fidelity's estimates, the typical set of parents will only be able to save enough to cover about 28 percent of what they'd hoped to contribute -- or about 18 percent of total college costs. That leaves parents with the tough choice of putting more of the burden on their kids or taking costly loans of their own to help finance their children's education.

What Kids Must Do Now to Be Ready to Pay for College

To help bridge the financing gap, students need to be savvier than ever when it comes to their own education. That requires using parents as a resource while not passing off responsibility entirely to them. In particular, there are three things teenagers can do before they go to college to have a better chance of affording it.

1. Start the Conversation

Money is a taboo subject in many families, and it's not uncommon for teenagers to graduate from high school without any idea of the financial implications of going off to college. Fidelity found that only 57 percent of parents with college-bound kids 13 or older have had any family discussions about how they'll pay for their college education. Moreover, despite their intentions to have their kids contribute financially to their college effort, barely a third have asked their kids to start setting money aside in savings.

That's why it's important for kids to play a role in starting the conversation about college. Many students find ways to earn income during high school, whether it's from informal work like babysitting or lawn care or from working a summer job. The sooner teens know that they need to set aside at least some of their earnings to help them finance their education, the longer they'll have to build up their savings and let it grow. According to a 2014 T. Rowe Price study, more than 80 percent of kids who learn about investments like stocks and bonds through discussions with their parents save for college on their own, compared to just 25 percent of those who don't have money discussions frequently. Kids and parents can both work to make sure those discussions happen.

2. Learn About What's at Stake With Financial Aid

Many students assume that financial aid will take care of all their college expenses. Only later do many realize that the student loans that make up so much of financial aid packages have huge consequences for their finances long after they graduate. Many graduates blame student loans for delays in moving out of their parents' house, buying a home of their own or even getting married and having children as early as they otherwise would.

Students need to understand the basics of student loans, such as how long it will take to repay a given loan amount and what monthly payments they'll owe. Comparing that with expected earnings from jobs after they graduate gives kids a better perspective on the true cost of college.

3. Manage the Costs You Can Control

Students can control several factors involved in college costs. The most obvious is the basic cost of the school. Will a cheaper school work? Can you cut tuition at a public university by establishing residency in a new state? Is off-campus housing cheaper than college-provided residential housing?

Most students will have at least some support from their parents toward a college education, and every little bit parents can contribute will help. But it's also important for students to do their share, especially given the increasing burden that college costs are putting on them and their parents alike.

You can follow Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google Plus.


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