There's no way around it: college is expensive. But there are things you and your student can do to prepare for that expense and temper it to a point that feels more comfortable for your family. Consumer Reports suggests "Having the College Money Talk" with your high schooler, and here, we'll reiterate the three tips we found most useful:
1. Encourage your student to graduate on time—from a college you can afford.
College is certainly a time for exploring, but too much exploring can end with extended college careers—and that costs money. You'll want to talk with your student ahead of time to be sure they know what they want to get out of college and how they're going to go about doing it. Consumer Reports points to an analysis from UT Austin that shows that students who take out students loans and graduate on time end up owing, on average, 40% less than those who take an extra two years to graduate. It's common sense, but it's easy to lose sight of.
Of course, it's crucial to select schools that will offer the kind of financial aid you need. If your student only applies to those "dream" schools that won't offer any scholarships, loans will pile up, and your student will be paying back their college tuition for their entire lives. By applying to a well-rounded list of schools with great scholarship options, your student will be able to pick a school that works for them, both personally and financially.
2. Be sure your student understands how much college will actually costs
Tuition + room + board = cost of college, right? Not so much. Because of both merit-based and need-based financial aid, you'll rarely play that full price. By estimating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or using a Net Price Calculator (NPC), you and your student will have a better sense of your options. Of course, a school won't offer you a scholarship until you've been expected, but being prepared in general terms will help your student build a realistic college list, based on those colleges' historical aid date
3. Talk with your student about how much debt they can handle.
Consumer Reports cites the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which says that the average starting salary for a student just out of college is $50,000. To keep debt to a manageable level, they suggest not taking out more loans than that (or whatever their actual salary will be, if they can estimate that better than the average). And when in doubt, err on the side of fewer loans. With interest, you can end up paying about 13% of your salary on loans. When you're also trying to make rent and live a life you're excited about, that can be quite daunting.
The money talk is never easy, but it's a great way to prepare your student for the real world.