How Caregivers Can Begin Financial Planning for Their College Student

By Kelly Burch

Watching your teen transition from childhood to adulthood can provoke anxiety. Parents and caregivers worry about how their students will adjust to the academic, emotional, and social challenges of higher education. But for many families, one worry rises above the rest: paying for college. More than 70% of parents of children younger than 18 worry about paying for college.

Being worried about finances is entirely normal, especially with the rising price of higher education. If you’re able to help your teen financially during college, you might worry about how that will affect your own financial situation. If you can’t help out with money, you might experience feelings of shame or guilt. 

Talking openly about money and college—and your feelings around them—can help clear the air. And yet talking about money can be awkward, especially since our culture tells us to keep finances private. 

Here’s how to get started.

Learn About Parents’ Role in Paying for College

No matter what your background—from being a college graduate yourself to being new to the country and unfamiliar with the educational system—there’s a lot to learn about paying for college. This resource from the government has lots of information about how caregivers can help their teens, including how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Decide How Much Help You Can—or Can’t—Offer

Before you can talk to your child about paying for college, you need to decide what you’re able to contribute. Sometimes, parents or caregivers can’t help with college, and that’s OK. 

This calculator helps you see your estimated family contribution, which is the amount your child (often with family help) will likely have to pay for each year of schooling. You can use the calculator to see how the amount you’re responsible for could change at different schools.

Explore Financial Resources for College

There’s no way around the fact that college is expensive. Yet, there are many resources available to help families handle the cost. Learn more about the different types of financial aid and student loans, including loans that parents can take out. Look for scholarships that your teen might qualify for (there are some surprising ones, like grants for tall students, or students who live in certain towns).

Thinking about college and money can be overwhelming, even for adults. Start early so that time is on your side, and lean on resources available to you, like this checklist that can help you, and help you help your student, prepare academically and financially for college.

If you need financial aid resources in Spanish, check out this English-Spanish glossary for student financial aid terms as well as this video guide to completing the FAFSA in Spanish. Currently, the FAFSA is only available in English and Spanish, but if you speak another language and want to receive interpretation or translation assistance, learn more by: 

  • Calling 800-USA-LEARN (800-872-5327) 
  • Emailing ed.language.assistance@ed.gov

Have Open Conversations

Next, bring your teen into the conversation. You don’t have to cover everything at once, but you might start with one of the following topics:

  • The top schools your student is considering and what financial aid programs they offer
  • Whether you expect your student to work while at school or participate in a work-study program
  • What you’ve already saved, or plan to save, for college, how you expect your student to pitch in, and how those contributions match up against grants, scholarships, and other forms of aid your student may receive 
  • Whether your student will need to take out loans, and what that might mean for their financial future

Starting early can help you work through emotions that come up, well before it’s time to financially commit to college. Reviewing these tips for tough family conversations can help you have productive talks.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.