The Parent’s Guide to College Planning

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  • Parents and guardians should begin saving as early as possible for their child's college education.
  • Parents can explore financial aid opportunities, such as scholarships and grants.
  • Families should consult with a financial planner to come up with the best savings plan.

Planning for college can be a confusing and stressful process for both students and parents or guardians, especially for parents of first-time college students. They must consider how to help their child with college applications, how much to contribute financially for college tuition, and how to navigate the college planning process.

According to the Education Data Initiative, parents want to save $57,980 for their child's college education.

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In the following sections, readers can learn more about college planning for parents and guardians, when to start saving for college, and how much to contribute financially.

What Is the Role of Parents in College Planning?

When it comes to college planning, there's no set role for parents and guardians. Some parents may choose to take a more hands-off approach in order to teach their children self-sufficiency or due to a lack of financial resources. Others may simply believe college isn't the right choice for their children.

All of these are valid reasons. If you're reading this guide, however, you're probably considering getting more involved in college planning. Guardians who aren't able to contribute financially can help their children prepare for college in other key ways.

"It is hugely important for parents to emotionally support their children throughout the college admissions process," said Virginia Ruehrwein, a college admissions consultant.

Ruehrwein recommends that parents communicate about college planning regularly and step in to help their children on an as-needed basis.

Here are some of Ruehrwein's specific recommendations for parents and guardians:

  • Communicate Openly: Ask your child what they need, and develop a mutual plan. Remind them of deadlines, and make sure you're always on the same page.
  • Define Parameters: Spell out how you can help, whether it's financially or with specific aspects of the application process (e.g., research, test preparation, or brainstorming for college essays).
  • Address the Cost of College: Parents and guardians must be open and honest with their child about how much they can afford to help, as financial aid opportunities and tuition costs may influence their student's choice of college.
  • Keep in Touch With Counselors: Seek information from guidance counselors, who can inform you about college information sessions, deadlines, financial aid, and campus visits. Be sure to monitor school calendars for events.
  • Use Trusted Resources: Some sources are more reliable than others. When researching schools, websites like BestColleges, the College Board, ACT.org, The Princeton Review, and — if your school offers them — Naviance and Scoir are helpful.
  • Ask for Help: Aside from guidance counselors and other professionals, you can ask other parents and guardians how they guided their children through the admissions process. If all else fails, college websites usually contain the information you need.

If there is one thing that can make or break a college application, it's the essay. Ruehrwein said students may benefit from their parents' help in this arena.

"Some parents opt to get help from professional college consultants throughout the process or just to review essays," explained Ruehrwein.

When Should You Start Saving for Your Child's College Education?

Guardians should begin saving for their child's college education as soon as they can. For some families, this may mean when the child is born; for others, it may be much later.

Parents should carefully examine their finances and determine how much they can comfortably invest in their child's college education each year. They should speak with a financial professional to determine what kind of savings account to open. For example, a 529 plan allows funds to grow and compound tax-free over time.

Families that can't contribute financially can still help their children navigate financial aid by exploring scholarships and grants.

When Should You Start Helping Your Child Plan for College?

Parents can help their children plan for college as early as ninth grade. In the following sections, guardians can explore each stage in their child's journey to applying to college.

9th Grade

In the first year of high school, parents should encourage their children to start thinking about their resumes for college. This includes exploring extracurriculars, internships, and work experience.

Students should try to find activities they'll want to pursue long-term that may lead to leadership positions down the road. Guardians and parents should also help their children start thinking about their career and/or ideas for majors in college.

Students can consider which subjects appeal to them and what a career in that field might look like. Guardians should remember that no decisions need to be made at this point, but they can help their children begin envisioning their plan for the future.

10th Grade

Sophomore year, students can begin meeting with school counselors to talk about potential honors and AP classes, their current college resume, and what kinds of colleges they might be interested in.

Parents should help their children pick their course schedule for 11th grade, advising them on how to balance harder academic classes and extracurriculars.

Guardians may also want to encourage their children to take the PSAT 10 or PSAT. The PSAT is a diagnostic test that allows students to understand the format of the standardized entrance exams used for college admissions.

11th Grade

In the fall, parents should encourage their children to take the PSAT. Taking the PSAT shows students their strengths and weaknesses in different testing areas and may also qualify them for a National Merit Scholarship.

At this time, parents should begin looking into financial aid options with their child as well, including scholarships, grants, the FAFSA, and student loans. If possible, guardians should help their children find financial aid opportunities that will not incur debt after college.

Students also need to prepare to take the SAT or ACT. Students often need several months to prep for these tests and may benefit from taking the exams more than once.

Guardians should encourage students to build a list of potential colleges to apply to. If possible, parents can take their children on-site visits to these schools.

12th Grade

Senior year is a busy one for students. Parents should encourage students to start working on their applications as early as possible. Parents and guardians also must provide detailed financial information for financial aid applications and should begin gathering the necessary paperwork for their child.

If possible, guardians may want to budget time for additional college visits. Students accepted to multiple colleges may need to visit the campuses to determine which school they like best. Parents and guardians should help their children track the following:

Frequently Asked Questions About College Planning

Is a 529 plan worth it?

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A 529 plan is a college savings plan sponsored by a state or state agency. As long as money stays in the account, no income taxes are due on the earnings. Withdrawals made to pay for qualified education expenses may be federal and state income tax-free.

Readers should speak with a financial professional to determine the best type of savings account for college. Different financial situations may call for different saving methods. Parents should begin researching college savings options as soon as possible.

How much should I save each month for my child's college?

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Starting from birth, parents should save about $300 a month to send their child to a four-year, in-state public college. However, parents must account for their personal financial situations. Not all families may be able to contribute $300 a month; some may be able to contribute more.

Parents should speak with a financial professional to determine how much they can reasonably contribute to their child's education each month.

How much will college cost in 10 years?

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College costs have risen each year and are projected to continue rising. Parents should assess college costs as their children grow and save accordingly. Families can also research financial aid opportunities such as scholarships and grants.

The Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority estimates that by 2032, college tuition will cost the following:

  • Public two-year college = $17,270
  • Public four-year college (in state) = $29,810
  • Public four-year college (out of state) = $51,930
  • Private four-year college = $68,230

With Advice From:

Portrait of Virginia Ruehrwein, Ed.M.

Virginia Ruehrwein, Ed.M.

Virginia Ruehrwein holds a BA from Providence College and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ruehrwein began her lifelong career in education as a teacher and was a high school guidance counselor when she found her true calling to specialize in college admissions. She served as a director of college preparation for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in Boston Public Schools for seven years. Upon moving to San Diego, Ruehrwein started her consulting practice, focusing on college admissions and standardized test preparation. She is a passionate and caring professional dedicated to guiding students to admission to their dream college.


Feature Image: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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