No matter your income bracket, the pressure to pay for college is real.

Tuition costs have gone up—sticker prices may be two or even three times as much money as you remember when you were applying to college. Add in confusion over financial aid and the pressure of application deadlines, and you may be feeling anxious in the months leading up to college. The good news: You’re not alone and there are answers. These experts have seen and heard it all and have some universal tips for parents on how to approach paying for college and developing the pathway that makes the most sense for your family.

Don’t Discount a School by Its Sticker Price

There are two important factors to keep in mind when you compare tuition: sticker price and net price.

  • Sticker price is the total yearly cost to attend the school and the price you’ll likely see on college websites.
  • Net price is the price it costs to attend once a financial aid package is deducted.

While state schools may have a lower sticker price than private schools, in many cases, private schools have a lower net price because they offer more scholarships, says Jed Mocosko, a professor of physics at Wake Forest University and the president of AcademicInfluence, a college consulting firm. “I suggest families with moderate household incomes add private schools to their lists,” he says. Mocosko suggests looking at schools where your child has test scores and a GPA slightly higher than the median ones accepted. Your child will be seen as a competitive applicant, and the college may be willing to cover a significant portion of your tuition through grants and scholarships.”

Many competitive universities and colleges have generous grant programs that apply to all accepted students. For example, Princeton covers tuition for students whose families make under $100,000; Harvard covers tuition for students whose families make under $85,000; and Stanford waives tuition for students whose parents make under $125,000. These are just some of the competitive colleges that have a standardized policy for low-to middle-income families. Using a net price calculator—many colleges offer one on their admissions page—can help you come up with a more accurate estimate of what you’re likely to pay.

Get Serious about Scholarships

Because applying for scholarships can be a lot of work, Derek Sall, a personal finance expert and founder of a personal finance website called Life and My Finances, advises students to start early. “Be strategic about how they’re applying,” says Sall. “Everyone’s applying for the large $25,000 scholarships, so look for ones that are more niche that your child has a good chance of winning. It can be helpful to begin looking at scholarship options as early as sophomore or junior year, and working on scholarships during the summer before senior year can give students a valuable head start.” And remember: Many scholarship opportunities are available throughout your college career. Regularly setting aside time to search and apply for scholarships during breaks can help you cover tuition.

Make Sure Your Retirement Plans are on Track

College tuition conversations often come at the same time parents are beginning to get serious about their retirement planning. Financial experts agree: Your retirement planning comes first. While it can be tempting to use some of your money to for tuition, make sure your own savings are covered. After all, you can take out loans to pay for college, but you can’t take out a loan for your retirement.

“Parents sometimes think of paying for college as an all or nothing concept,” says Sall. “But offering to pay for part of college is still incredibly generous.” Figure out what you can afford to cover and make a plan with your child about how they’ll make up the difference. This might be applying for scholarships, starting at a community college, or taking out student loans.

Fill Out the FAFSA®

“Some parents don’t fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) because they assume they won’t qualify for aid,” notes Ron Caruthers, a wealth advisor based in Southern California and the author of What Your College Guidance Counselor Didn’t Tell You. “While they may be correct that they don’t qualify for federal aid, the FAFSA is also used by colleges to distribute grants and scholarships.” Not only that, but having a FAFSA on file can be useful if you lose your job or your financial circumstances change. This can give you the paperwork needed to make a case and file an appeal with your school’s financial aid office for more aid.

Ask for 529 Contributions

If you have a 529 plan, consider asking people to contribute to it in lieu of presents for your child’s birthday or holidays. There are websites that can help you set up a contribution link, and there are even gift cards for 529 plans available for sale at chain stores. Think about it: If 20 people give $25 a year to your child’s 529 plan every year that your child is in high school, that’s an extra $2000 (that will grow in the account) that would otherwise be spent on random gifts your child doesn’t necessarily want or need.

On that note, it’s often the case that grandparents want to contribute to a 529. Depending on their financial situation, it may make sense for them to create a 529 themselves, with your child as a beneficiary. In the past, money from a grandparent 529 would have been considered a student asset and affected the FAFSA, but that is not the case anymore under the FAFSA Simplification Act.

Work with a College Planning Financial Advisor

Talking with a college planning financial advisor can be helpful as you prepare to pay for college, says Bob Chitrathon, CFO at Simplified Wealth Management, a firm in Southern California. “It’s a way to look at options. Because everyone’s financial picture is different, working with an advisor may give you pathways you hadn’t considered.” For example, there may be alternative ways to pay for college that make sense for your family situation, or you may be able to clue into savings strategies that can help maximize any runway you have before the first tuition payment. Your financial advisor may have expertise in this area, or you might be able to find one in your area that specializes in planning and paying for college. If you haven’t worked with a financial planner in the past, attending financial aid workshops early on can give you valuable insight into the financial aid process

Talk with Your Children about Money

It’s a good idea to talk about your financial plan with your kids—and also talk about their financial plans, too. Even if you can cover their full cost of tuition, will you be able to help them out once they graduate? What do they want to major in, and what might their expected salary look like? What are their financial goals? If your child wants to go to a prestigious school that costs tens of thousands of dollars more per year than other options, what makes it “worth” it? There are no wrong answers, but talking about money in conjunction with college goals can help your family figure out which school makes the most sense—from a personal and financial perspective.

“These conversations are important, because finances can feel really abstract,” notes Chitrathon. “You can’t see the future, and there are a lot of unknowns. But talking through the ‘what ifs’ can be helpful in weighing the pros and cons of different schools at different price points.”

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

Discover Student Loans encourages you to consult a financial planner before making financial transactions. You should also consult a tax professional for tax advice.

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