Growing up, college was considered a luxury item that was worth the sacrifice necessary to obtain it. It wasn't for everybody, and community college and state schools were viable options. My graduating high school class had students that went to West Point, Cal Tech and Ivy Leagues, but just as many lived at home and went to community colleges, or nearby private smaller schools. Those who didn't go to college, went to work and both options were considered equally valuable.
The College Debt Landscape
In recent years, college has been looked at as an opportunity for everyone, and with the deregulation of student loans and the promise of ready money, it's been more of a given than not. But maybe it shouldn't be. With a whopping 1200% increase in the cost of college since 1980, the average college student graduates in 6 years, rather than 4, with around $37000 in debt. That doesn't take into account the near 50% of students who start college and don't graduate, leaving school with a lot of debt and no degree. Given current trends, parents are understandably anxious about their children's access to quality education and financial well-being. Statistically, those with degrees earn significantly more over the course of their lifetime, so college degrees are still a good investment, if students can keep their student load debt in check and actually graduate.
While we might feel like the bulk of our parenting is over, once our kids graduate from high school, it's important for parents to realize that young adult hood is more complex, more expensive, and more anxiety inducing than what we probably experienced as young adults. Our kids still need guidance and input about how to navigate the complexities of young adulthood. Because, getting saddled with $100,000 in debt for an English Lit Degree can limit their choices for decades.
So, what can we as parents do to help guide their kids through this challenging environment.
Start Early Financial Planning
One of the most effective ways to alleviate the burden of college costs is to start financial planning early. Begin saving for your child's education as soon as possible, ideally when they are still young. Open a college savings account, such as a 529 plan, which offers tax benefits and allows your savings to grow over time. Encourage your child to contribute a portion of their own earnings to this fund, teaching them the value of financial responsibility and investment in their future education. It's not always a given that this is doable- I get it! Graduate school, kids, medical bills- they can all add up to no savings. But don't worry- there's other options if you were unable to save up!
Explore Alternative Paths
Explore alternative paths such as community colleges, vocational schools, and online courses, which can often provide quality education at a fraction of the cost. These alternatives can also help students gain practical skills that are in high demand in today's job market. Don't overlook Dual Enrollment, CLEP Exams, which can allow your student to earn college credit for pennies on the dollar. Several states allow students to earn an Associates degree while still in High School, paid for courtesy of your tax dolloars, including Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and others. Be sure to check out if this is an option for you!
Research Scholarships and Grants
Encourage your child to actively seek out scholarships and grants. Many organizations, both private and public, offer financial assistance to deserving students based on academic achievements, extracurricular involvement, and other criteria. Help your child compile a list of potential scholarships and assist them in preparing strong applications. Additionally, ensure they complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine their eligibility for federal grants and financial aid.
Promote Career Exploration
Prior to committing to a college or major, it's crucial for students to explore their interests and potential career paths. This can help them avoid changing majors, an unexpected hidden expense that can multiple college costs by tens of thousands of dollars. Encourage your child to participate in internships, job shadowing, or volunteer work related to their interests. This hands-on experience can provide valuable insights and help them make informed decisions about their educational and career goals. Given the changing job markets, this is one class that is a must have for every high school student!
Teach Financial Literacy
Equip your child with essential financial literacy skills. Teach them the importance of budgeting, managing credit wisely, and understanding the long-term implications of student loans. Encourage them to seek out part-time employment or paid internships during their college years to offset expenses and minimize reliance on loans. By instilling these financial skills, you'll empower them to make sound financial decisions throughout their educational journey and beyond. Most freshman in college have never taken out a significant loan for anything in their lives, and they are now confronted with loans that can equal thousands of dollars in debt. The average student takes 20 years to fully pay their student loan debt, so understanding the debt structure, deferment, forbearance and the terms of student loans (they can not be bankrupted) can save your student years of debt stress.
Invest in a solid Test Prep Program!
Test scores still matter, as they are a clear path for institutions to award scholarship dollars. One point difference on the ACT/ SAT or CLT can mean the difference between a moderate scholarship and a full ride scholarship. Again, a good test prep program cost pennies on the dollar when you consider the financial benefits that it could yield.
Explore Non-Traditional Vocational Training
Programs such as apprenticeship programs like Unbound or Apprentice University, fast track online college degrees, like what Smarter by 1 Degree helps you create, Vocational Training routes that require apprenticeships and certifications rather than degrees and finally, Entrepreneurship. There is a low entry point to so many online opportunities now, that it might just make more sense to put money towards a website and marketing than a college degree.
While soaring costs of higher education may be worrisome, but proactive steps can help parents guide their children through this challenging landscape. By starting early financial planning, exploring alternative education paths, researching scholarships and grants, promoting career exploration, and teaching financial literacy, parents can play a pivotal role in ensuring their children have access to quality education without being overwhelmed by the burden of student loan debt. In doing so, you'll empower your children to make informed decisions about their education and set them on a path toward a successful and financially secure future.
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