Take charge of your college planning; design a planning roadmap so that you can better navigate through complexity and confusion to find your way to lower college costs and more college success.

Are you ready for less stress and more success in planning for and paying for college?

Start by developing a personalized roadmap to guide your efforts, so you can make more informed decisions and undertake more purposeful and timely actions, that ultimately save you lots of time and money along the way.

Over the past 30 years, the long-term value of obtaining a college degree has been overshadowed by the significant impact of astronomical college costs and the accompanying burdensome student loan debt now weighing down millions of graduates.

College planning and more specifically college financial planning, remains intensely complex fueled in great part by the twin forces of not having enough information – like the lack of transparency in college pricing and financing options – on one hand, then a fire hose of information (mostly disorganized and not relevant) on the other hand, both of which leaves families really dazed and confused.

In late stage planning, the complexity intensifies feverishly as families try to manage the myriad of student activities – academics, standardized testing, applications and more. And then hamstrung by time constraints and fast approaching deadlines, parents and students end up stressed out and emotionally drained and on course for overspending for college long before freshman year begins.

It’s time for a better approach! Put yourself in the driver’s seat for your college planning journey.

Create a college planning roadmap so you can see more of the big picture for the years (or months) ahead. Adding in a few goals and milestones can keep you more focused and organized, especially when the frenzy really sets in.

Your roadmap is more than just a to-do list. It is your sight lines into the varied components of college planning, which are actually very interconnected, so decisions and actions in one area, can and do impact what happens in other areas. Increase your chances of success by connecting-the-dots to guide your path forward.

College Planning Timeline

As a starting point in figuring out your family’s roadmap – goals and milestones, consider that there are two big time periods to manage through in this process; the early stage – before high school and the late stage – during high school.

Pre-high School Years

Use this time period to focus on building a solid foundation academically for the student and financially for the family.

Pay special attention to progressive reading and comprehension skills and improved study habits; all of which can contribute to future success with high school classes and standardized testing.

Start saving and investing for college. Even small amounts saved early and often can add up over time.

Also, introduce money concepts into the mix for young students. Building their knowledge and understanding of managing money early on can help improve their decision making for their future college planning and support their financial well-being for a lifetime. For age appropriate materials and resources visit:

High School Years

The real race begins. Good grades and study habits should remain a top priority for all high school years. Classes should become more challenging too.

Standardized testing can begin as early as sophomore year, for the PSAT. The college search process and exploring majors begins.

One important financial note; your finances and tax filings start becoming very important during your student’s sophomore year. The financial aid application for each year of college will require the submission of financial information for the prior-prior income year.

For example, a parent filling out the 2019-2020 FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for a student preparing to enter freshman year of college would have provided 2017 income and tax filings. 2017 would have encompassed the spring semester of the student’s sophomore year, as well as the fall semester of their junior year.

Then crunch time arrives for junior and senior year. Here are a few major tasks to be completed:

Saving for college should continue throughout the high school years as well.

There is no shortage of activities for students and parents throughout the college planning journey, especially in the late stages.

To reduce the potential for overwhelm and confusion as you move through your planning, add some structure to the process by organizing and focusing on three key areas; Student Preparation, School Selection and Financial Readiness.

Student preparation. Helping students stand out in the college admissions process to attract more schools of their choice and more money to cover the costs of those schools.

Student academic strengths carry the greatest weighting in college admissions and high school grades and coursework and standardized test scores represent the core of that process.

From a planning viewpoint, consider all learning years meaningful, with the students pre-high school years laying the foundation to high school success and the high school years as the building blocks to college success.

Next, college admissions takes into account how well-rounded a student may be and how that may influence and benefit a chosen school.

During high school years especially, students should find activities that are really interesting or fulfill a passion they have outside of the classroom or that meet a community or family need. Participating in the arts or sports, volunteering, or having a job, are valuable experiences that can support student personal growth, boost learning and building relationships, all of which can positively impact future college applications and enhance the college years.

School selection. Finding the best overall value for your family, one that represents the right fit for your student and the right price for your finances.

Expand the list of schools in your search. Go beyond brand names and popularity. Dig deeper to find relevant information related to how schools help students flourish, graduate on time and not drown in debt. A few areas to consider:

  • Academics – check out the department of the students decided/potential major
  • Campus life – engagement inside and outside of the classroom
  • Future outcomes – job placement, salaries
  • Financial fit – affordability, generous need based or merit-based aid

A couple of resources to help you:

A “FIT” OVER RANKINGS Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity is a Stanford study highlighting that student success in college is not related to college rankings, popularity or expensive costs, but is more about student engagement wherever they attend.

https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/find-colleges To help you research schools 

Financial readiness.  Managing varied strategies and financial resources to most efficiently cover your college costs without taking on excessive debt or short-changing your financial future.

Obviously personally saving and investing for college is important. The more you save, the less debt you need to take on. And, by utilizing 529 college savings plans you can enjoy tax deferred account growth and tax-free use of your funds for qualified educational expenses.

However, there is definitely more you can do to lower your college costs.

School selection plays a major role. A few factors that significantly impact your costs:

  • Less expensive versus more expensive schools (obvious, but worth repeating!)
  • Net prices – school generosity levels in offering more or less tuition discounting and other financial aid – some schools are more generous than others. (this is also where student preparation makes a difference – potentially helping you attract more money in the recruitment process.)
  • Four-year graduation rates – some schools do a better job of graduating students on time, which will save you money. Check out graduation rates at collegeresults.org.

Additionally, it is critical to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid application (FAFSA) for every year of college.

Do not make the assumption that your income is too high to qualify. Given today’s high college costs, financial need is not limited to low-income families. Even if you do not qualify for federal need-based aid, the FAFSA must still be on file for access to institutional aid for many schools.

The majority of students attending college today are receiving some type of price break, and many schools are providing the discounts themselves.

Maximizing potential tuition discounts and other financial aid is a significant and worthwhile activity that can really pay off in lowering your college costs.

Planning for and paying for college remains a challenging feat for most families.  Without taking proactive steps to rein-in costs and curb student loan debt, too many financial futures will be compromised.

Develop your college planning roadmap now (or update your existing one) to help you see a more holistic view of the many decision points and action items on your planning journey. Shape your goals and milestones around the key areas of student preparation, school selection and financial readiness, so that you can find greater clarity and success on the road ahead.


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