For parents of middle schoolers, college might seem a long way off. However, the earlier you begin planning, the more savings and opportunities your student is likely to have when it’s time to apply to college.

According to the 2018 study “How America Pays for College” conducted by Sallie Mae, “families who haven’t saved and have limited income at the time college comes around may be at a disadvantage.” In light of this, begin some planning, researching, and saving now so that your student has an advantage later.

Some parents of middle schoolers have no issue with getting their teen to jabber on. But many struggle to get more than a grunt. And that’s just on the topic of what happened at school that day. How in the world can you get them to open up about college and savings?

Know where to start. Here are a few questions to begin the conversation.Piggy Bank with Black Graduation Hat on

How much will college cost?

The best way to learn specific costs of colleges is to investigate the colleges in question. Most list their costs and fees on their websites, but you can also refer to College Profiles or About Nebraska Colleges on our website. While public 4-year universities usually cost less, many private 4-year universities have larger scholarships available for students. That being said, having a savings plan in place in addition to pursuing scholarship opportunities will help the student make any college option more affordable.

Who is responsible for paying for college? 

Usually, parents take responsibility for funding their child’s college education, as noted by “How America Pays for College”: “Parents take the lead in paying-for-college decisions more often than students, but not always.” If parents begin to prepare early for the costs of education, they may not be required to take out any or as many loans to cover college costs.

Talk about expectations of who will pay what. How much will you, the parent, pay for your child’s college? Is it a specific dollar figure, or a percentage of the cost? The 2018 Sallie Mae report showed parents paid 34% (or $8,891) of their child’s college costs per year with savings or income. (This amount will likely be lower at a 2-year college.)

And what do you expect your child to pay? The 2018 report showed 13% (or $3,339) was student income, and 28% ($7,348) was scholarships and grants.

How can my student prepare to pay for college?

Save the money they receive.

It is a good idea to encourage your children to save their money, especially when they are young. If they can develop this quality early, it will serve them well when they become more independent during and after college.

Encourage them to get a part-time job (babysitting as a middle schooler, and at a business when they are in high school) – and save part of the cash. When your child receives money as a present for their birthday or a holiday, save part of it for college. Or, avoid a potential fight over what your child wants to use the cash for and ask relatives or friends to specifically ear-mark those gifts for your child’s college funds.

Support them in preparing to earn future scholarships.

Scholarships are very important, primarily because they have the potential to cover more costs than grants: “Scholarship funds paid for 17 percent of college costs.” Grants paid for 11 percent of costs (p.2).

Many scholarships are based on students’ interests or academic achievements. You can help your student become a better scholarship candidate by encouraging them to stay focused on their schoolwork and get involved in extracurricular activities they enjoy.

How can we as a family make changes in our budget to save more for college?

Will you give up a couple coffee runs each week? One less clothing outfit each month? In what area can both parent and student sacrifice a little in order to save for college?

Finally, consider saving in a NEST 529 college savings plan. Read this blog to better understand the advantages of this type of account.

How are you feeling about this conversation?

You as a parent may be thinking it’s too early to have the “paying for college” conversation (just to clarify: it’s not). And your child may be feeling some anxiety about it as well. High achievers may be concerned they are not “good enough” to earn scholarships. Children without a sense of a career path may feel lost or like a disappointment for not knowing what the future holds.

Check in with your child about their feelings on this subject (and others) often. Something as simple as, “How did that make you feel?” or, “What makes you feel anxious about us discussing college?” There may be an underlying issue you didn’t know about that needs to be addressed.

If parents of middle schoolers plan ahead to save their money and encourage their students to seek out scholarships and maintain good grades, the costs of college could be greatly reduced and the likelihood of needing to take out loans will be lessened. Setting expectations now will be so important to avoid future stress. Best of luck as you begin this conversation with your young teen!