Your College Planning Checklist

four graduation caps held in the air

The benefits of having a college degree on top of a high school diploma are so incredible that you’d think choosing to go to college would be a no-brainer:

  • A college grad accumulates over $800,000 more in his/her lifetime compared to someone who only graduated high school.1
  • The unemployment rate is 3.8% for college grads vs. 12.2% for high school grads.2
  • High school grads are almost four times more likely to live in poverty than college graduates.2

Nevertheless, college can be pretty intimidating when you consider the costs, academic requirements and the motivation/work needed to graduate.

Good news!  Preparing for college can make it a lot easier.  From elementary school to high school graduation, there are steps parents and students can take to help them get ready for college and experience the benefits of higher education.

Elementary School

For students, simply doing their best in school, reading a lot and having fun learning will go a long way.

Parents can help by reading aloud to their children, checking homework, and following school progress on reports and at teacher conferences.

This is also a good time to start saving for college.  You might even get tax benefits for your efforts!  Research the tax advantages of state-offered college savings plans and prepaid tuition plans at collegesavings.org or talk to a Money Coach Tax Specialist.

Middle School

The transitional period between childhood and teen are a time for students to think about college as an important part of their future and worth discussing with family and people at school.

Students can prepare for high school by taking challenging classes, developing strong study habits and doing their best on standardized tests.  Consider trying new activities to learn new things and explore personal interests.

From there, you can research high schools or special programs that match their interests.  Take it one step further by helping your student make the connection between their interests and related college majors and/or careers.

Also consider visiting fafsa.gov to research how much federal student aid your child might receive.  Based on what you find, you may want to adjust your current college savings contributions.  Your Money Coach can help you assess how an increase in savings contributions might impact the rest of your budget and monthly expenses.

Each Year of High School

There are some things students should consider doing every year of high school:

  • Work with a parent to estimate potential financial aid at fafsa.gov and continue saving for college
  • Take challenging courses in core subjects
  • Consider working or volunteering to expand their interests
  • Talk to their school counselor about education after high school to get an idea of what to expect

Parents – continue doing what you did during middle school: keep an eye on their grades and study habits, talk about college plans, and encourage them to take challenging classes.  If you haven’t already, consider helping your teenager set up a savings account for college, and contribute to a college savings fund regularly.

9th Grade

When your teenager enters ninth grade, take some time to plan ahead for the next several years of high school.  Talk to a school counselor about AP (Advanced Placement) courses and how to enroll in them.  Students can even start exploring career options like local internships set up through the school.

Make sure you keep track of any awards, honors, extracurricular activities, and paid and volunteer work, which will come in handy when filling out college applications.

As the school year comes to a close, your teenager will probably look forward to some rest and relaxation.  Keep them future focused with summer fun that includes academic enrichment programs or camps with specialty focuses like music, arts or science.

10th Grade

College may be a couple years away, but you and your teenager can still attend career fairs or college info nights to get an idea of what’s out there.  Take some time to research and help your teenager understand the difference between grants, scholarships, loans and work-study programs, and any associated requirements (e.g. a particular grant may require being involved in certain extracurricular activities prior to applying for the financial aid).

In addition to discussing college admission and financial aid requirements with their counselor, students may want to take a practice PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), or the PSAT 10, or the PreACT.  Taking practice tests can inform you of any area in which your teenager may need further study or improvement before taking the official tests later on down the road.  Keep in mind that these tests often come with a fee, so make sure to fit that expense in your budget.

Help your teenager develop independence by encouraging them to take responsibility for balancing homework and other activities, such as a part-time job.  Learning and instilling best habits now will set them up for a more successful college experience.

Over the summer, consider work, volunteer time or taking a summer course at a local college.  If your teenager is interested in getting a head start on college courses, make sure that any units earned will transfer to the college they end up attending once they officially graduate high school.  This also gives you a great opportunity to discuss expenses – talk to your teenager about how much it costs to enroll in the class, buy the necessary books, etc., and how to fit that in the budget.

Not sure how to talk about the financial components?  Have your teenager join your next consultation and let your Money Coach help with the conversation!

11th Grade

This is a pivotal year for college planning!  It’s all about tests, assessing your savings goals and narrowing down your options for financial aid and college itself.

In the fall, 11th-graders should take the PSAT/NMSQT to qualify for scholarships and programs associated with the National Merit Scholarship Program.  In the spring, they should register for and take exams for college admission, which often include SAT, SAT Subject Tests and the ACT.

Check that you’re on track to pay for college, or at least some of it, and talk to your teenager about schools they’re considering.  If your teenager has their own college savings, make a point of helping them see if they’re on track as well.

Attend financial aid information events at the high school (if you haven’t already) and consider visiting college campuses.  Visiting a college can help a student make up their mind about attending, provide an opportunity to talk to the financial aid office (if necessary), and help your student better understand campus life.  Just remember to keep your budget in mind and plan for travel expenses like airfare, hotel, etc., that might be needed for the trip.

Summer Before 12th Grade

Senior year!  For most students, this means college is only one year away.

Ask colleges for admission applications, financial aid, admissions requirements and deadlines.  Prepare for handling financial documents and protect your teenager’s identity by having them create an FSA ID.  They will use their FSA ID to confirm their identity, access their government financial aid information and electronically sign federal student aid documents.  You will have to create your own unique FSA ID as well.  Visit studentaid.gov/fsaid to get started.

This is also a good time to decide if your student will apply under a college’s early decision or early action program.  If so, get the program’s deadlines and requirements.

Apply for scholarships so you can lessen the amount of any student loans you may need.

12th Grade

Many seniors see this year of high school as a time to kick back and relax.  Celebrating the last several years of experiences and friendships is great!  But there’s still a lot to do in preparation for the future.

Make sure your senior understands that their grades can affect scholarship eligibility, and that staying involved in extracurricular activities is important.

Keep in mind that students can complete and submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.gov, starting October 1st, along with other financial aid applications that their chosen schools may require.  The FAFSA should be submitted by the earliest financial aid deadline of the schools you’re applying to (usually by early February).

After you submit the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report, or SAR, within three weeks.  It lists the answers to the questions on your FAFSA and gives you some basic information about your aid eligibility.  Colleges often use the information generated by a FAFSA when determining scholarship recipients, so it’s important for you to make sure that your FAFSA information is correct and readily available.

Now’s the time to actually apply to colleges!  Make sure your teenager follows the instructions and meets the deadlines.  This often includes having the high school submit transcripts and asking teachers to send letters of recommendation.  Double check that any requested letters of recommendation make it to their destination(s).

In the spring, visit colleges that have invited your student to enroll, and review college acceptances and their financial aid offers.  Contact a school’s financial aid office if you have questions.

When your teenager finally decides on a college, notify the school of your commitment and submit any required financial deposits.  These are often needed by May 1st.

If college is just around the corner and you find that your college savings are not where they need to be, there is hope!  You have options you can consider, like having your student go to community college, which can cost significantly less than universities.  Before dipping into retirement savings or taking on more loans, talk to a Money Coach and discuss options that don’t include damaging your finances.

Lastly, try not to let the process of preparing for college overwhelm you.  It’s a lot of work, but taking it a step at a time should make it less taxing.  Above all, remember that you don’t have to go it alone.  Get the help and guidance of a Money Coach who is a College Planning & Student Loan Specialist.  Call 888-724-2326 today.

 

1Daly, Mary C. and Leila Bengali.  “Is It Still Worth Going to College?”  frbsf.org.  San Francisco: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 5 May 2014.  Web.  9 Nov. 2015.

2“The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.”  Pew Research Center, 11 February 2014, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/.  Accessed 3 November 2017.