'Financing College: Where’s the Money?': Start early

This is the second in a series of articles from Penn State offering tips and information about financing a college education.

The cost of college can be paid for before a student enrolls in a higher education institution. Financial strategies before enrollment included savings, employment and capitalizing on athletic and academic achievements — each of which can lessen the amount needed at enrollment.

While some families believe that savings will work against them in the financial aid process, the truth is, for most low- and middle-income families, assets do not factor heavily into determining “Expected Family Contributions,” which is a category used in financial aid as a basis to determine a suggested amount that a family can pay toward college costs.

With that in mind, Anna Griswold, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director for student aid, offers this advice to Penn State alumni and others as it relates to a child’s college educations: “Start at birth.”

One option for savings is Pennsylvania’s PA529 College Savings Program. A few of the advantages of this plan include: Contributions are deductible from Pennsylvania taxes; earnings are tax-free when used for qualified expenses; and the program may be used at most colleges and career schools nationwide.

As college begins to approach, students and families can explore costs and financing options. One starting point Griswold recommends is using a tool called the Net Price Calculator. Every college has this tool posted on its website. It gives students and their families a look at “Expectant Family Contribution” and the amount of money in grants and loans which may be available, given the family’s income and assets. Prospective Penn State students can view the University’s Net Price Calculator here.

Using this tool can educate students and their families on the cost of specific colleges, laying the groundwork to select the higher education institution that achieves the best fit given the student’s desired curriculum and financial means.

In addition to family savings as a source for paying for college, many students take on part-time jobs. While working too much during enrollment in college can be counter-productive, employment before college can effectively spread paying for this investment over more years, to decrease the burden during and after college. Most students can successfully work for 15 to 20 hours per week while in college without negatively impacting their studies, while at the same time helping them to meet some of their cost of attendance.

Scholarship and grant money can be secured before enrollment and also throughout a student’s college career.

High school guidance counselors can be good resource to help identify a student’s strengths and facilitate scholarship and award opportunities within the high school and beyond.

The next installment of this series, “Free Money,” will examine how to secure grants, scholarships and other funds for a college education which do not need to be repaid.

Read the first story in this series, “Financing College: Where’s the Money?” (introduction).

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Last Updated March 29, 2017