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Too many parents make the mistake of waiting until the fall of their child’s senior year to start thinking about college. However, by waiting, your child could miss out on a number of opportunities that could end up costing your family thousands of dollars in missed financial aid and scholarships.

Ideally, you should have started planning at the start of your child’s junior year, but if you start working now you still have time. Here are four things you need to do.

1. Start Researching & Visiting Colleges

The first thing you need to do is sit down with your child and research what kinds of colleges they’re interested in. If they don’t know, they should visit some local colleges to get an idea. This will depend on what career they plan on pursuing, the money available for them to go to college, their grades and other factors. Guidance counsellors might be able to help narrow the list, and so might Internet resources like this guide to cheap colleges.

Once you have an idea of what schools they would potentially like to attend, you can start visiting them. This might be difficult if some of them require long road trips to visit. That’s why starting early gives you enough time to spread those visits out over the summer and senior year.

From personal experience, this is an incredibly valuable part of the process. Upon visiting my first choices for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I knew that they weren’t the right fit for me. If you can’t afford to visit the schools, then you can connect with alumni or current students in the area who went to those schools and find out about the programs.

2. Begin Your Scholarship Research

If you think your child is a good candidate for scholarships, then you should start researching the scholarships that are available to them right away. Applying for scholarships can be a lot of work and some are due in the early fall. Families that wait until the fall to start their research often have to forgo applying for the ones with the earliest due dates. By making a spreadsheet with the ones you plan on applying for now, you can start learning how to apply for scholarships, start working on the applications over the summer and be better prepared once the hustle and bustle of senior year starts.

By getting an idea of what scholarships are looking for now, your child can also potentially do something over the summer to add to their resume in order to be a better candidate. If most of the scholarships that you’re finding are looking for students with something specific like leadership experience and your child doesn’t have that much, they can potentially get involved in something over the summer break that will impress scholarship judges come application time.

Starting early also ensures that you can be better organized when you ask for community and teacher references, which will make them more likely to dedicate time to make them stand out.

3. Get Your Finances in Order

Many parents save money to send their children to college without understanding how financial aid works and set themselves to get thousands of dollars less than families who planned for college with financial aid in mind. For example, let’s say you had your child save money in their bank account for college. Did you know that doing that could cost your family thousands in financial aid?

FAFSA, a financial aid form that many colleges use to determine financial aid, requires that a family contribute 20% per year of money held in a student’s name toward college costs while they only require parents to contribute 5.64% of money held in the parents’ names toward college costs. That means that if your family saved $20,000 for college costs in the child’s name you would be expected to put $4,000 per year towards school but if that same $20,000 was in the parent’s name you would only be expected to contribute $1,128. That’s a huge difference! By shifting that money into a 529 plan now, that money will then be counted as the parent’s and assessed at the lower rate.

That’s just one way you could lose financial aid money by not understanding how it’s calculated. To prepare, consider contacting a financial planner who understands financial aid rules.

4. Figure Out How You’ll Pay

Does your family intend to pay for all the costs your child will incur going to college? Or do you think it’s important that your child pays some or all of their own college expenses? You and your spouse or co-parent should sit down to discuss how you plan to approach college costs. Once you know how you want to do it, you should bring your child into the conversation so that they know what to expect.

If you plan on using student loans to fund your child’s degree, it’s important that you all understand how student loans work so that your child will take borrowing money seriously and not get into more debt than they will be able to handle. If you decide to co-sign on your child’s student loans, be aware of the potential impact it could have on your credit. (You can see how co-signed loans are affecting your credit by getting your free credit report summary, updated every month, on Credit.com.)

If you plan on paying for all or most of the costs, you might need to make some financial changes starting now to ensure that you will have enough. Hopefully, you’ve already been putting money aside but you might also need to create a new budget that will ensure that you will have enough. Most parents underestimate how much college will cost, so be sure you look into the full costs of college to help you figure out if you’ll have enough.

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