Starting Late

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May 13, 2002

So you haven't saved enough to pay for your kid's college? Well, if it's any consolation, you're not alone. A study by Sallie Mae, the country's largest source of funds for higher education, found that parents of high schoolers applying for college had saved less than half of what they needed to cover their expected expenses. What's more, one in five hadn't saved anything at all.

So what's a Foolish mom and dad to do? Well, it's never too late to get smart.

Make sure Junior is really ready to go to college. Less than half of the students at four-year colleges or universities actually graduate. Before plunking down (or borrowing) tens of thousands of dollars, make sure that this is really something your child wants. A year off in the real world, waiting tables or delivering pizza, may be just the ticket to convince your Kerouac-wannabe that college might be worth it after all. 

Choose a cheaper school. Weigh carefully the true benefits of a private school against the cost savings offered by a larger state school. A college degree is an investment. Will a psychology degree from Snooty U. really be more valuable than a psychology degree from State U.? Will it be worth six more years of debt to pay for it? Only you and your child can answer that. But the burden of debt after school is a compelling argument.

Attend a school close to home. As an in-state student at a public institution, your child will not only pay a reduced tuition but also will probably be eligible for financial aid earmarked for townies. Also, travel expenses and long-distance phone bills add up, especially during the first year, when homesickness may be more pronounced than later (when your kid realizes that he doesn't really miss you that much after all).

Think creatively. Why not go to a community college for the first year to get the more generalized courses out of the way at cost savings of 50%? Or take some classes online? Hundreds of colleges and universities now offer classes over the Internet, and most charge in-state tuition whether you're a resident of that state or not.

Look for co-op/intern programs. Many schools offer co-op programs where Junior can go to school for one semester and then work in his field for a semester. It may take him a little longer to finish his degree, but when he gets out he'll have experience in what he studied. He'll also have some money in his pocket, and possibly a job offer from the company where he interned.

Save something. See if you can set aside a little bit, even if your offspring is only couple of years from college. Whatever you can sock away now is less that you'll have cough up later.