Saving for Your College of Choice

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It has become a big worry for most parents: How can they save enough money to help pay for their children's college education?

Students today can take advantage of a large number of loan, grant and scholarship opportunities to help them cover the costs of higher education. However, even with these financial tools, paying for college can be overwhelming.

Simply put, college tuition continues to rise, far outpacing inflation. Also, many college students who have to rely too heavily on student loans leave college burdened with tens of thousands of dollars -- or more -- worth of debt.

Fortunately, parents can take some measures to ease the financial stress that their children will face when starting college. It all comes down to starting a college savings plan early.

College costs

Just how costly is college? The numbers are staggering. According to the College Board, a moderate budget -- which includes tuition, fees and room-and-board -- for an in-state public college for the 2015-2016 academic year came in at an average of $19,548.

That is high. However, consider the moderate average cost of a private college at the same time: That figure clocked in at $43,921

Those are the prices now. Depending on how long your children have before they reach college age, you can bet that the costs of attending college will have risen even higher.

In fact, college tuition has risen by roughly 3 percent a year for the 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 academic years. This makes saving for college even more of a challenge for parents.

If your child has three years before he or she is ready for college, you can expect tuition to increase by a factor of 1.13. So, if the yearly tuition at your child's favorite college stands at $14,000 today, you can expect it to rise to $15,820 in three years. Moreover, if your children will not be ready for college until 12 years from now, you can expect that $14,000 tuition to skyrocket to $22,300.

Of course, this assumes that college costs will continue to rise at their current rates. That might or might not happen. However, as a parent, you must assume that college costs will continue to soar. It is the only way to make sure that your children will not be overburdened with student loan debt when they graduate.

According to The Project on Student Loan Debt, 69 percent of seniors who graduated from public colleges in 2014 had an average of $28,950 in student loan debt. That is a two percent increase from 2013 graduates.

It is not easy for graduates to get started on their new lives with those high student loan bills. Many of them will struggle to find jobs or will be working entry-level jobs that don't pay much. It is a good recipe for long-term debt problems.

Fortunately, saving for college does not have to be impossible for most parents.

Start early

The key is for parents to start saving for college as early as possible. That way, parents will not have to put too much away every month. If your children are still in elementary school, for example, you can get away with stashing as little as $50 a month in a savings account devoted to your children's college education.

You can also take advantage of savings vehicles designed to help parents save for college. Some of these programs include the Coverdell Education Savings Account program and 529

College Savings Plans.

Where do you find that extra money for college? Maybe you can cut back on eating out. If you take a lunch to work each day rather than hit the local fast-food restaurant, you could save $40 or so a week. Those are dollars that can go to your children's college education. Maybe you can give up that gourmet coffee on the way to work or cancel subscriptions to magazines that you no longer read. You might also give up or reduce your cable-TV service.

It is also never too early to begin researching potential scholarships and grants. These programs can take a hefty bite out of the cost of a college education. Scholarships today are not only available for sports or athletic achievements. Students can receive scholarships based on their skills with foreign languages, community service or writing talents. Parents just have to do the research to find a scholarship program that fits their children.

These seem like small steps, but they can add up to big savings. The key is to start taking these small steps as early as possible. Saving for your children's college education too late can make the task seem financially overwhelming.