6 Steps to Plan Out College Costs (and Loans) While You’re Still in High School

High school students, listen up: No matter how far away college seems, it will be here before you know it — along with costs such as tuition, dorm rooms, meal plans, and more.

The time to start planning how you’ll pay for college is now. Use this time to research and compare the costs of colleges you’re considering and calculate how much student debt you’re likely to need.

Here’s how to chart your college costs and make informed decisions so you can avoid expensive loans for college students.

1. Research costs of attendance

The college you choose to attend has a huge impact on the costs you’ll face and whether you’ll have to rely on loans for college students in order to pay them.

Start researching prices at different colleges you’re interested in. All colleges track and report their costs of attendance — estimates of what students pay to study at the school.

You can find costs of attendance on colleges’ sites or through helpful online tools, including the following:

  • The College Scorecard, created by the Department of Education, is an easy way to quickly find and compare enrollment costs or average loans for college students at specific schools.
  • The College Navigator is a similar database of statistics on colleges and other postsecondary schools, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

2. Compare college expenses

As you research, compare colleges and their costs. Prices can vary widely, often based on the kind of institution it is. For example, here are the average tuitions and fees for different types of colleges:

  • Four-year public colleges for in-state students: $9,650
  • Four-year private colleges: $33,480
  • Two-year public colleges for in-state students: $3,520
  • For-profit colleges: $16,000

Stack the prices of colleges on your list against these averages and against one another, and you’ll quickly see which colleges are most affordable.

As you hunt down these figures, make sure you also track expenses beyond tuition, including room and board, textbooks, and more. A community college in your area probably will offer low tuition, for example. And if it allows you to live at home with your parents, you’ll save even more by avoiding the costs of dorms and meal plans.

3. Project costs out over your degree

Once you know the specific annual costs of a college, calculate how much your degree would cost in total. Simply multiply the annual costs by the number of years it will take you to complete your degree.

You also can use this calculator from The College Board to quickly estimate your total college costs based on annual expenses. It even accounts for yearly tuition increases in its projections.

See, for example, this graph below for a high school freshman who plans to attend a public college while living at home with their parents. Based on the average $9,650 annual costs, they’d face total college costs of $45,439.

loans for college students

Image credit: The College Board

4. Estimate the student aid you can count on

If these total costs seem high, don’t panic. Most students will qualify for federal financial aid that helps make college affordable. This aid includes federal loans for college students but also free aid you won’t have to repay, such as Pell Grants, work-study benefits, and scholarships.

The best way to know what student aid you’re eligible for is to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can submit it as early as the October before you plan to attend college.

If you aren’t headed to college next year, you won’t be able to file a FAFSA yet. But you can estimate the federal student aid you might receive with the FAFSA4caster tool.

The average undergrad at a public, four-year college receives $7,010 per year in grants and scholarships. These funds help recipients pay less out of pocket and take out fewer loans for college students.

For instance, let’s say the student in the example above received this average student aid award. It would cover all but $2,640 of their $9,650 costs for a school year and take their total costs down to only $12,431 — just 27% of the total price tag of their degree.

5. Figure out what you and your family can pay out of pocket

Now that you have an estimate of your net cost — how much of your college expenses you should expect to be responsible for after grants and scholarships are applied — you can start working out a plan to pay it.

Between you and your parents, identify how much money is available to put toward your college degree. Do you have a funded 529 college savings account or other savings you could use to pay for college? Can your parents budget a certain amount each month to help cover costs as you go?

If you’re getting help from your family to pay for college, set aside some time to review the expenses you’re facing and what financial resources you can use to pay them.

Look into ways you can chip in to help cover college costs too, especially if you know you won’t get much help from your parents. Get a part-time job and put your earnings toward your college fund. Or commit time to searching and applying for scholarships.

6. Decide if loans for college students are worth the degree

Whatever costs are left after you’ve applied student aid, savings, and other cash available to you, that’s usually how much student debt you’ll have to borrow. After you’ve been accepted to schools and know how much financial aid each one offers, take stock of your situation.

Did you get into your first-choice school but receive little to no financial aid to go there? If your second or third choice offers a better deal, consider the total costs before making your final decision.

You could be stuck with your student loans for a decade or more after graduation. As a high school student, understanding the trade-offs of your college choice can help you choose a school that will get you close to the life and career you want without the burden of too many loans for college students.

Knowing how much you’ll owe on your loans for college students can help you decide if the college of your choice is worth the costs and loans that come with it.

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