Consult High School Counselors to Set College Savings Goals

Reyna Gobel

High school counselors can help parents and students headed to college learn how to fill in last-minute gaps in college funding with additional scholarships, budgeting tips and advice for acquiring money for college.

However, counselors can't help if families don't make appointments at various stages of the college selection process and ask the right questions, including those below.

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1. What can we do now to lower the cost of college? Early in a student's senior year, parents can assess how much they'll be able to save in a tax-advantaged education savings account, called a 529 plan, from their current-year income as well as while their student is in college.

To assess how much money will be in their 529 plan upon their child's high school graduation, they need to talk to their 529 plan manager or financial advisor, says Jerry Love, a Texas-based certified public accountant and personal financial specialist.

A financial advisor or program manager can discuss how much 529 plans are expected to grow during college, he says. Typically, families shouldn't expect more than 5 percent annual growth because investments tend to be conservative close to when the funds are needed, he says.

When they know what money they have, parents should meet with the student's high school counselor to discuss ways to fill savings gaps, says Jim Bierma, project director for a college and career preparation program at the University of Minnesota.

One way students can fill a savings gap is by taking college admissions tests again to improve their chances of getting scholarships. Students with ACT or SAT scores above the college average, especially at private schools, could qualify for more scholarships, Bierma says.

For instance, a student with an ACT score of 29 would stand a good chance of getting some scholarship funding at a school whose incoming students have an average ACT score of 25, Bierma says.

All students should apply for scholarships. Bierma has seen scholarships given to students who didn't have high GPAs because only a few students applied. Tens of thousands of scholarship dollars go unclaimed, he says.

Students shouldn't worry about applying for more scholarships than they can use, says Brian Law, a counselor at Valdosta High School in Georgia. They should save any scholarship money received that they don't need freshman year to put toward tuition in future years, he says.

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2. If my child gets a part-time job now, will it make a significant difference in college savings? A high school senior who gets a part-time job could earn enough to pay for textbooks for all four years of college. Sharon Sevier, a counselor at Lafayette High School in Missouri, says she looks toward students to help come up with the money needed after scholarship money is awarded.

"Getting a part-time job during senior year and saving the majority of what is earned can fill in the gap and also help towards living expenses and 'mad money,'" Sevier says.

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3. How can I make sure my student will be able to survive in college off the budget we come up with? "So many kids go off to college and think the money is going to keep flowing," says Sevier. High school seniors need to be on a cash budget now while their parents are in the same home to guide them, she says.

"Make a list of what is spent each week on food, entertainment, etc. and keep up with how much is spent and available," Law advises.

A better option is to give high school students a bank account with enough money to pay for their own food, clothing, housing and car expenses, Sevier says. Then they write checks to their parents as bills come, she says.

"The result of learning how money is spent in high school will help students learn to manage their budgets in college," Law says.

Trying to save for college? Get tips and more in the U.S. News College Savings 101 center.