Back up 20 years ago: My husband and I brought home our first-born, Sam. The days were calm and quiet, our time was spent holding, sleeping, and watching. Friends and acquaintances warned us, “It’ll go by in a blink” and, “Before you know he’ll be leaving the house.” We chalked up their advice to sentiment believing we had all the time in the world to plan, teach, and prepare him to “leave the nest.”
Full disclosure: They were right.
Of course, life happened and all the sudden Sam was a senior in high school. I remember sitting at dinner on a spring evening relishing the conversation thinking soon he would be a missing component at the table and wondered, “How did we get here?” It was a moment of impact that offered a gauge for time both emotionally and for practical planning. The “here” in “how did we get here” doesn’t happen all at once, but it does happen quickly.
We haven’t planned perfectly, but we have sought to be intentional preparing for this time. A part of the preparation of the years leading up to college include college visits, scholarship applications & interviews, and looking at college costs and savings. By planning appropriately, the financial need and preparation doesn’t have to creep up unnoticed and there are a few things that particularly stand out as giving him a head start in our own college preparation.
College Savings (529) Plans
Starting a 529 is a tax-advantaged way to save for college. Almost every state has a plan program and families can choose any state’s structure that fits their needs, although the tax advantages vary from state-to-state. In Nebraska’s NEST College-Savings plan, contributions are made with after-tax dollars and earnings grow federally and state tax-deferred, plus withdrawals are tax-free if the funds are used for qualified college expenses. In addition, Nebraska taxpayers can deduct up to $10,000 annually in contributions. 529 savings accounts can be opened by almost anyone and anyone can contribute, a good avenue for gifting. Students can also open an account and name himself/herself as beneficiary, a good place for part-time job income to land. Personally, for our family with three children, it is a major piece of growing our college savings.
If a student is willing to do some work, there are many scholarships available based on varying criteria- leadership, academic, interests & organizations, financial, and more. Most schools’ counseling centers provide a list of scholarships offered. The work put in by a student can certainly pay off, especially if awarded multiple scholarships.
This may not seem like a primary advantage, but the genuine relationships our son developed with adults were invaluable in obtaining letters of recommendation that can speak honestly and specifically to who he is as a student and person. These relationships have stemmed from involvement in organizations and activities, as well as him intentionally developing relationships with teachers.
The FAFSA may sound daunting. Although it takes time and info-gathering, it is quite simple and can offer financial aid that makes a difference, depending on your financial situation. Read here. Our high school was very good offering educational speakers and communicating deadlines. You do want to stay on top of recommended dates.
What makes sense?
What plan makes sense as to a student’s interests, gifting and financial ability? In-state/out-of-state school, community college, trade schools, gap year organizations and experiences, etc. There are many post-high school opportunities that target students’ interests that can be good growth and preparation experiences.
A couple of years ago at the dinner table, I recognized how quickly time passes. That feeling continues. Now, our son has a year of college under his belt. Time continues to fly, and we’re intent to not be caught watching life happen. Having one in college and more to come is thoroughly enjoyable for us all, and nostalgia has landed squarely in my heart. So, to those of you in the midst of holding on to hope for a good night’s sleep, active days shuttling kids, and cereal dinners, I share a few words imparted to me: The days are long, but the years are short. Enjoy these moments and make the most of them.