5 Crucial College Planning Tips for Middle School Parents

I work with a lot of families who have kids planning to attend college in the next 5-10 years. Many families don't get serious about college funding and planning until their kids get to high school and it becomes too hard to ignore!

But for those families who start to plan and strategize earlier (let's say middle school aged and younger), there's a lot you can do now that will set you up for a better college outcome.

Save for College (even if it's a small amount)

The most obvious piece of advice is probably to start funding some kind of college savings account if you haven't already. It's never too late (or too early) to start, and don't worry if you have to start small. It's better to put $50/month into an account now and build from there than it is to do nothing and hope for some kind of miracle between now and when your kids go to college!

There's an important deadline to be aware of as well. If you are interested in putting savings into the Virginia Prepaid 529 plan, the latest you can fund that account is when your child is a freshman in high school. After that, your only option is the regular investment 529 plans. If you plan to use the Prepaid 529, I would definitely start investing in that plan prior to your child's freshman year.

I'm a big fan of the Prepaid 529 plans because they allow you to lock in today's price of tuition to use later when your child attends a Virginia public school. These plans do have their drawbacks, particularly if you aren't so sure your child will be attending a Virginia public school. See my blog post here for a more in-depth discussion of the trade-offs.

Educate Yourself About the Cost of College and How Financial Aid Works

Another key piece of advice is to start to get an idea of how much college is going to cost when your children get there. Every school publishes their all in Cost of Attendance (COA) somewhere on their website. You can also get this information easily from the website www.collegedata.com. Most Virginia public schools cost between $25k and $32k per year, including tuition, room and board, books, fees, etc.  College costs have been going up at a rate of about 5% per year, so be sure to factor that in as well.

It also wouldn't hurt to get an idea of whether your family will qualify for need-based financial aid or not. You can estimate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) here. This is how much you will be expected to pay per year before qualifying for any need-based aid. If your child goes to a school with a Cost of Attendance that is lower than your EFC, than you have pretty much no chance of getting need-based aid. See my post about college financial aid for more details on the calculation.

Don't get too caught up in the details at this point since college is likely several years off. I just want you to have some realistic numbers in your head about how much it's going to cost. Most people can't fully save for the cost of college, but getting started early will help you make a bigger dent in the total cost.

Figure Out Your College Funding Philosophy

This is also a great time to start a conversation with your spouse about your own philosophy on paying for college. Everyone has a different perspective on this, and it's better to understand each other now. Some people had to pay their own way through college and found it to be a difficult but worthwhile experience. They may want the same thing for their own child, or they may want the complete opposite! Some people want to make sure their children graduate from college without any student debt, while others see a reasonable amount of student debt as a way to make sure their child has "skin in the game" and takes their college education seriously.

There's no one right answer here. The important thing is to start a dialogue with your spouse, and eventually start a dialogue with your child as well. Setting expectations early will help smooth the whole process.

Make Sure Your Child Is Building a Solid Foundation to Learn and Grow

Make sure your child is getting a good education! Middle school grades typically don't count at all toward your college "transcript", but it's a good idea to make sure your child is getting a solid foundation of learning for when they do get to college.

Math especially tends to get a lot more challenging in high school, and if your child is just getting by in math, it might make sense to look into a tutor or extra academic help to make sure they've got the fundamentals down before high school. You'll want to make sure your child is prepared to take a rigorous course load in high school.

It's also important to expose your child to all kinds of activities and ideas to broaden their mind and find out where their interests and strengths lie. You'll never know if they might become an accomplished musician, athlete, artist or leader if they haven't had the opportunity to give it a shot. Middle school and high school years are a great time to try new things. You'll probably be hoping for merit-based scholarships, and having interests and involvement outside of pure academics will help with that.

Tighten Up the Budget

From a financial standpoint, I can say that the costs of having children just keep going up. Every time you think you've hit a cost savings milestone (done with preschool, no more after-school childcare, don't need sitters, etc.), there will be something else to take its place. Activities and sports and school trips all seem to add up. So don't think you'll be able to save more as the kids get older. Now is the time to make sure you are making conscious decisions about how you spend your money and align your spending with your values. I'm a big fan of the budgeting software YNAB to really help you gain control of how you spend and save your hard-earned money!

Working with a Certified Financial Planner can help you clarify and illuminate the college planning process. Contact me to set up a free consultation and get your family on the right path for financial success today.



Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Alyssa Lum, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.