TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — If you’re not already saving for your kid’s college education, you might want to start now, regardless of his or her age.
The costs to attend a college or university continue to rise, and while politicians and education advocates are looking for solutions, parents still have to live with the costs for now.
That’s why Jackie Magness, college and career counselor at Del Valle High School, advises starting saving as early as possible.
“I’ve had conversations with the elementary and middle school counselors,” she said. “They’re working hard with their families.”
When students come to her to discuss their futures, she starts by directing them to O*NET OnLine, the U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored site that allows students to find careers they’re interested in and colleges that offer degrees to get them there.
“A good fit college is one that offers the degree that you’re interested in,” she said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, I’ve grown up in Austin my whole life; I’ve just got to be a Longhorn.'”
Once students find possible programs and colleges that offer them, she shows her students how to start looking for scholarships. There are a lot of them out there, but it can be a full-time job trying to find and apply for the right ones.
Search companies like Red Kite and Fastweb match students to scholarships based on certain criteria. Del Valle ISD also keeps a list of available scholarships and search sites on the counselors’ page. Some sites can start matching students to scholarships as early as elementary school.
“You can Google scholarships for left-handed people and scholarships will come up,” Magness said.
Lamar Turner found one of those very specific scholarships before he came to the University of Texas at Austin last year. Now a sophomore, Turner is from a small town outside of Victoria.
The $20,000 scholarship he received came from a wealthy UT alumnus who was from the same place and wanted to provide aid to students from that area who were accepted in UT’s business school.
“I’m not a religious person, but it was a blessing. We were pretty excited” to get the scholarship, he said. “People from those kind of areas don’t have a lot of people telling them, like, apply for scholarships here, do this, prepare for this.”
His father’s military service offered more financial aid, and he took out loans on top of all that. Still, he found himself running out of money toward the end of his first year. He admits he spent too much, and plans to work this year to keep up with costs outside of school.
“Eating out is expensive,” he advises incoming college students, “so pick friends with cheap tastes.”
His predicament illustrates how much college costs have risen even over the last two decades. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based publication that covers colleges and universities, collected data going back to the late ’90s on thousands of colleges’ tuition rates.
The searchable database shows the cost to attend UT as an in-state student more than tripled since 1998, from $3,004 per year to $10,136 per year in 2017. That doesn’t include room and board, which tacks on another $10,070 per year.
Magness doesn’t find much use in dwelling on increasing costs.
“I try not to look at the picture of that’s how much it cost then, how much it costs now,” she said. “It’s just what we have to work with now.”
That’s why it’s important to start planning early, she said. For students who get to senior year without a plan, it’s not too late, but it might be time to temper expectations. Community colleges are good options for students who find themselves with less financial aid than they need, because they allow many people to live at home and pay far less money for the same classes they’d get at four-year colleges.
Once students get to a university, it’s important to continue finding and applying for scholarships, because new options will still be available after high school.
Regardless, Magness said, the most important thing families can do is fill out their FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That shows how much aid students are eligible for, whether Pell grants (which don’t need to be paid back) are applicable, and what families should prepare to pay for college.
Groups like Foundation Communities’ College Hub offer free FAFSA preparation for families that need a hand.