Start early now for college

March 10, 2011|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

Some things I know.

I've been doing them so long they are ingrained.

I can save money on kids' clothes by working an end-of-season clearance rack like nobody's business.

I can double the Sunday newspaper coupons with the grocery store's weekly sales, and haggle over the price of a car with the best of 'em.

But figuring out how to finance my child's college education — Eek. I'm a newbie. A novice. Wet behind the ears, to say the least.

My oldest is a junior and the time is ripe to get cracking on this project. But unlike stocking the kitchen with groceries, this task doesn't offer a chance to try again every two weeks. Not registering for Free Application for Federal Student Aid  —  known as FASFA — or making a scholarship deadline is far weightier than forgetting to pick up that buy-one-get-one creamer.

Funding a college education has far-reaching consequences. Doing so wisely could mean the difference between setting into adulthood with financial security or financial struggle.

While I desire the former for my children, I've never had any delusions about the fact that I will not be able to fully foot the college bill. Even if I could, I likely wouldn't. I believe a young person who bears at least some degree of financial responsibility for his education usually will take it more seriously than one who is along for a free ride.

So, here we are, venturing to gather information and pool our resources — ours and our son's — to make this higher education thing work the best way we can figure.

We're learning that ideally, college planning is a process. Here is a basic outline of what I'm learning students need to do, grade by grade.

 Ninth grade —  They should explore school resources to help prepare for college. Talk to counselors and begin considering goals. Take classes that challenge and interest them, and be involved in activities.

 10th grade — Take the PSAT. While scores won't count for college admissions, it will help students get familiar with the test. Go to college fairs, check out websites and visit with college reps to see what's out there. Over the summer, get a job to gain skills and save money. If their family vacations near a college that interests them, stop by for a visit.

11th grade — Register for FAFSA. From this, the government determines how much money a family will be expected to contribute toward college. Many colleges use this information to determine eligibility for university grants. Take the PSAT in the fall to be eligible for National Merit Scholarship awards. Study for and take the SAT. Download some college applications and get familiar with them. Research financial aid and begin applying for scholarships.

 12th grade — Take the SAT again. Decide which schools you want to apply to and note deadlines. Get teacher evaluations, write essays and have transcripts and test scores sent to colleges. Be sure they have completed all financial aid forms. Continue applying for scholarships. Send applications on time, typically by January.

These are the bare bones. Each student is unique, and college paths have innumerable variables. See your guidance counselor to work out the details.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is

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