Stressed about paying for your child’s college education? Follow these steps to help you think clearly, find the information you need and set realistic goals.

Whether your child is 18 years or 18 months away from their first day of college, you’re probably asking yourself this question: How are we going to pay for it?

There’s no doubt about it. College is expensive and the path to paying for college leads to so many questions. How much money will we need? How do we save the right way? How can we possibly save enough? Will my child be able to go to a good school? How much debt will we – and our children – end up with?

Take a deep breath and a big step back. Good financial planning starts by looking objectively at the problem and mapping out a clear path to success. And College Money Smart can help you with that.

To start, we feel that parents and students need these three things to ensure success:

  • Courage to power through the planning process 
  • Clarity to make well-informed decisions 
  • Confidence to stay the course


Here’s how to use the “three Cs” of courage, clarity and confidence to define clear goals and set your future college student(s) up for success.

Tap into your courage

College planning is indeed challenging; it’s confusing, intimidating, time-intensive and fraught with emotions, financial roadblocks and risks. Dig deep and find the inner courage to work through these hurdles. Doing so will help you see the big picture and better manage the planning process along the way.

But how did paying for college become so stressful in the first place? The driving factor behind today’s college planning challenges is cost. College costs – tuition, room and board, fees – have skyrocketed more than 100% (adjusted for inflation) since the 1980s! And unfortunately, wages and salaries have not enjoyed the same trajectory.

The financial commitment and strain placed on parents and students paying for college has been overwhelming in recent years:

  • The average one-year cost for the 2019-2020 school year for private schools is $49,870 and the average cost for in-state public schools in 2020 is $21,950. On the very high end, some schools’ published prices are approaching $300,000 to earn a bachelor’s degree. 
  • Many families are struggling under the weight of excessive debt, to the tune of $1.5 trillion in student loan debt nationwide. And this number does not include the money families may have pulled from their retirement accounts and home equity to pay college.

Extremely high college costs and the potential for excessive debt loads – for both parents and students – can put your family’s financial future at significant risk. And parents have far less runway to recover from debt than students do, as retirement needs loom closer. According to AARP, of the $1.5 trillion of student loan debt, more than $290 billion belongs to people over the age of 50. “Paying for higher education is becoming an inter-generational burden, ensnaring more older adults and delaying or battering the retirement plans of many of them.”

And although young students may have more time than their parents to pay off debt, AARP says, “Young people today are on a path to growing old without gaining financial solvency. Carrying large amounts of student loan debt hampers their ability to save and build wealth. Repayment periods are now often 20 to 25 years – nearly double what they were a generation ago.”

The struggle is real! You’ll need to significantly reduce your costs, save more money, minimize debt and protect your long-term financial well-being. And it’s not a one-and-done kind of activity. There will be a series of decisions to make and actions to take for both parents and students in order to succeed.

This is where your courage comes in.

Parents: Tap into your leadership skills by having conversations with your kids early on and collaborating with them throughout their schooling, especially as it relates to the affordability of paying for college. Given the complexities and risks involved, there’s way too much at stake to leave it up to your kids to figure out. They need your help and guidance. Your college planning journey will be filled with lots of activities: reading, learning, asking questions, filling out applications, making phone calls, taking trips, meeting deadlines and more. Tap into that bucket of courage and get started!

Seek greater clarity

Now that you’re fired up and full of courage, start finding clarity in the college planning process. Greater clarity can mean the difference between paying for the right amount of college and, worst case, taking on an excessive amount of debt that hampers your – or your child’s – life.

Start by keeping up with the changing college landscape

There are a few important factors influencing today’s colleges, and you can use them to your advantage:

  • College has become a buyer’s market, so you do have buying power. There are more than 3,000 schools in the U.S., and outside of Ivy League and elite schools, most schools are challenged with filling their seats and meeting their admissions goals.
    • Takeaway: You do have choices. Don’t limit your school search too narrowly or too early on just based on price.

  • College pricing isn’t static; it has become dynamic. The high, published prices you see are not what most families are paying. Schools are significantly discounting tuition, to the point that approximately 90% of students attending private colleges and universities are not paying full price and are receiving need-based, merit-based or gift-based aid. For public institutions, more than 70% of students are paying discounted tuition rates.
    • Takeaway: You can reduce your out-of-pocket costs, but you’ll need to do your homework. Comparison shop for more generous schools and encourage your student to work harder to stand out in the admissions process so they can qualify for more aid.

  • Most students don’t graduate on time. Less than 40% of students attending public colleges graduate in four years or less. Just over 50% of students attending private colleges and universities graduate on time.
    • Takeaway: Spending more time in school is more costly. Research a school’s four-year graduation rate to see how well the school is doing in terms of graduating their students on time.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to the college conversation than meets the eye. We’ll talk about many of these topics in upcoming weeks.

College Planning Keys to Success

Define and refine your goals

Understand that your success in planning for and paying for college can be found in three key areas: school selection, student preparation and financial readiness. Tackling these topics upfront can help set the stage for the rest of your planning:

  • School selection. Build a wish list of potential schools based on relevant factors such as academics (by department or major), campus life, financial fit and return on investment.  
  • Student preparation. From elementary school onward, your child is on a “learn to earn” journey. That is, developing as a student over the long term to better stand out in the admissions process. They’re also developing skills to succeed in college and beyond. Your child’s progress can also help inform your school selection.
  • Financial readiness. This involves managing your financial resources, understanding college pricing and figuring out your main sources of money for college.

By understanding and organizing around these categories, you can find opportunities to lower your cost and make your planning easier to manage. We’ll expand on these topics as well.

Seek out trusted resources

What does this mean for your family? Given all the complexities, you will need to dive deeper than surface level in your research and planning, skip making any assumptions and get real-time information to keep up with this evolving landscape.

The good news is that there are many sources of information available online. The not-so-good news is that much of the information is difficult to understand, not organized for ease of use, is misleading or just not relevant to your situation. It will take some time to sort it all out. To help, College Money Smart has a resource page filled with links to trusted resources to help you plan.

Go forth with confidence

Whether you’re just starting out or you’re already deep into the process, there is much to understand, consider and do. Armed with courage and clarity, it’s time for you to confidently go on your college planning journey.   The journey will be challenging, both financially and emotionally. You want to help fulfill your child’s dreams, while they want to excel and make you proud. The pressure is on and significant dollars are on the line. But trust in yourself: Have faith that with the right information and proper planning it will all work out.

You can do this. Let your confidence lead the way, helping you to become a savvier, informed and more organized college consumer. College Money Smart will be right there with you.

Article Resources and Links

AARP Public Policy Institute
The Student Loan Debt Threat: An Intergenerational Problem
by Lori A. Trawinski, AARP Public Policy Institute, Susanna Montezemolo, AARP Office of Policy Development and Integration, Alicia Williams, AARP Research, May 14, 2019

Suggested Citation:

Trawinski, Lori, Susanna Montezemolo, and Alicia Williams. The Student Loan Debt Threat: An Intergenerational Problem. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute, May 2019.


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