Perhaps you have been saving tax-free in a college 529 Plan ever since your child was a toddler, which is commendable. However, whether you have pre-saved the money for college costs or not, it is still important to comparative shop for the best deal for your family’s education dollar, just as you would when comparative shopping for school supplies, a new TV, or anything else your family buys. How do you begin?
There are some students who know exactly what they want to do and what they intend for their major to be in college. For them, it is a matter of identifying the colleges you can afford which specialize in or offer that major emphasis, or program of study. For example, if your daughter has her heart set on becoming a veterinarian, find out which colleges offer animal or pre-veterinary science, or any other program of study which would qualify her to seek admission to a school of veterinary medicine. She may have fewer affordable college choices as possibilities due to her need for a specific major.
For other students, although they may intend to go to college, they may have no idea what they want to study as their major. For them, a general education college program which offers introductory classes in many areas allows them to explore multiple possibilities and “find” what interests them most before declaring a major concentration. In this case, you will probably be able to identify several colleges you can afford because a non-specific major can be found at more colleges thus giving you more choices.
So what will it cost? According to the College Board, the cost for tuition and fees for 2007-2008 averaged $6,185 at a four-year public college. Public college costs were up 6.6% from the previous year, but they are still significantly less than the national average of $23,712 at private four-year colleges. Why would a family spend that much more for their child to attend a private college? Some families have a tradition of attending a certain private school and they are willing to spend more (in this case, $17,527 more) for their child to attend that private college.
If your student has had good grades and scored high on national merit exams, s/he may be recruited and offered an attractive scholarship to attend a specific college. Both public and private colleges will offer scholarships as incentives to attract good students. Compare scholarship packages when considering costs. Although a $10,000 scholarship to a private college is very attractive, if tuition and fees are $23,712, you will still have to come up with savings or loans to cover the $13,712 balance. If that same year of college at a public school costs $6,185, then you save $7,527 by not taking the $10,000 scholarship offer from the private college. Always do the math.
The College Board reports that 2007-2008 room and board charges are similar at both public and private colleges, $7,404 at the public schools, and $8,595 at private colleges. They note that the average costs of tuition and fees and room and board have been rising at both public and private colleges.
What if your family just can’t afford even the lower cost of $6,185 for tuition & fees and $7,404 for room and board at the public college? After all, even if your student gets a work study or part-time job to help out, that is still $13,589 per year for 4 years, for a total of $54,356 and college costs continue to rise. What are your other options?
Most communities are served by community colleges which offer general education classes for low cost. These community colleges offer 2-year associate degree programs and they have agreements with public 4 year institutions which allow their students to transfer the credits they have earned to the 4 year institution to be counted toward a 4 year bachelor degree. Having a student live at home and attend a community college for the first 2 years of college before transferring to a 4 year college for the last 2 years makes college more affordable for many families.
Other considerations: If your son or daughter finds a preferred program of study at a public college outside your state of residence, although the tuition and fees for that school may be lower than a private college, be aware that your student will be charged extra (out-of-state tuition and fees) as a non-resident of that state. States try to offer a program of study for every major in at least one of the publicly funded colleges within the state. However, some states are not able to afford to offer all majors within their state so they set-up cooperative agreements with other states which will allow their students to attend an out-of-state school without having to pay non-resident tuition. If your student’s desired major is not offered in your state, check to see if your state has a cooperative agreement for your child to attend a public school with that major in a neighboring state.
College is a good investment. If your child is younger, start saving now in a tax-deferred educational fund and enjoy federal and state tax benefits plus the peace of mind of knowing you’ll be ready to cope with college costs when your child graduates from high school.
Reference: “Trends in College Pricing 2007, the College Board.”
Gloria Nye, Extension Associate, LSU AgCenter