Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press Personal Finance Columnist, USA Today [article contains video]
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Want another scary stat about all those college bills?
Nearly 9 in 10 families always knew their child would go to college. But fewer than four in 10 families ever created a plan for how to pay the bills, according to the How America Pays for College 2017 report.
No plan? No surprise that borrowing is going up with college tuition costs, and more families find the need to give up on some schools altogether.
In 2008, about 58% of the families surveyed for the report indicated that they had eliminated some colleges due to cost. This year that number was up to 69%.
The report, released by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, is based on a telephone survey of 800 parents and 800 undergraduate students ages 18-24.
The good news, though, is that saving money for college, searching for scholarships and studying what is affordable can be tackled at any time, even if you didn't have much of a plan to start.
1) What kind of money can you expect to spend?
On average, it costs $23,757 for one year of college in the 2016-17 school year, according to the How America Pays for College figures.
Where did families get the money? The largest chunk — $8,390 — came from scholarships and grants.
Then, parents contributed $5,527 from their own savings and income. Students ponied up $2,569 from their savings and income.
As for borrowing? On average, parents borrowed $1,819 for the school year and students borrowed $4,551. The rest of the money — $901 — came from friends and relatives.
Rick Castellano, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae, which offers private student loans to college students and families, said some people feel too overwhelmed to plan or save for college.
"They see the cost of college and they assume 'How am I ever going to save for all of that?'," he said.
But he said regularly setting aside even small amounts can make a difference, especially if one starts saving as early as possible.
Some parents use money they once spent on diapers to start contributing to a college savings plan for a toddler. Others use what they once spent on day care toward college savings once the child heads off to kindergarten.
"We know if a family has a plan, they're going to save more for college and borrow less," Castellano said.
2) Where can you cut back on costs?
It might not sound exciting to be able to save $50 or $75 on a college application fee. But if you're applying to several schools, those fees can add up. So watch for opportunities to apply with no fee.
The Cappex Application, which was launched Aug. 1, streamlines some of the process and saves students money by eliminating application fees at a variety of schools. All colleges that accept the Cappex Application have agreed to waive application fees.
"Having to pay an application fee can be a barrier for some students, especially low-income students and first-generation college students," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com.
The application is accepted at more than 125 colleges, including Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Drake University in Des Moines; Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio; Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and Spalding University in Louisville, Ky.
"The Cappex Application uses about one-fifth fewer questions than the Common App,since we eliminated redundant questions," Kantrowitz said.
It can pay to do some early legwork in the applications process, too.
The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success has an application platform that can streamline the process. Fees would apply but be waived for low-income students.
The Coalition website also gives helpful tips on writing the key college essay when applying. See www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org.
The Coalition group includes major public universities and private colleges including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis and Ohio State University.
3) Spend serious time researching scholarships.
Experts suggest getting a clear handle on scholarships, including deadlines and requirements. Some sites for information about scholarships include the College Board at www.collegeboard.org and FastWeb at www.FastWeb.org.
Too often, some students do not know what's available or follow through with filling out the forms and writing the necessary essays. But even smaller scholarships in the $500 to $1,000 range can help cover costs.
4) Remember the FAFSA.
The first step to finding out what kind of financial aid is available is to fill out the FAFSA form.
The filing season for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid kicks off Oct. 1. High school seniors would file for FAFSA even before they're admitted to a college or university. See www.fafsa.ed.gov.
Many times, students apply to five or more colleges and need to review financial aid packages. So by filing the FAFSA earlier, you should be able to get a better picture of what financial aid might be available at a given school.
It's a good idea to think about what schools the student is serious about attending well before the filing season begins, said Pam Fowler, executive director of financial aid at the University of Michigan.
Fowler said you can add schools later but there's a limit to the number that can be put on the original application. If you're serious about the school, better to list that school early in the game.
5) Where can you get more college dough?
When it comes to college savings, many 529 plans offer low monthly savings programs and can be fairly easy to open. The Michigan Education Savings Program, for example, allows you to open an account for as little as $25. Savings, of course, can grow over time depending on the investment strategy.
About 13% of families surveyed for the How America Pays for College study said they used money in a 529 plan to pay for college in 2016-17. That's down from 16% in the prior year's survey and the lowest percentage in the past five years.
The average amount used by families from 529 plans was $10,031.
Many students and parents also look for ways to make more money — and cut spending — while a student is in college.
About 76% of students work to help pay for college, according to the How America Pays for College report. Half of students live at home and commute to campus. Parents and students also reduce their personal spending to cut costs.
Financial aid experts say students shouldn't be afraid to work on campus while in school, as well. Many campus jobs require only 8 to 10 hours of work a week and may even help build a student's résumé.
Contact Susan Tompor: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-8876. Follow her on Twitter @Tompor.