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Paying for college soon? It's time to make a game plan.

It may seem like your child went from taking their first step to starting high school in the blink of an eye. Now they’re talking about moving away and going to college. This can be an overwhelming time for you and your child, and you may be wondering how you’ll pay for college – as well as what steps to take. We’ve put together a checklist to help you make a game plan and feel more prepared.

1. Sit down with your child to consider potential scenarios.
Are they eager to start at a four-year school? Do they know what they want to study, or do they need time to figure it out? Your child has many options to consider – including community college, trade school, university and service programs like AmeriCorps. Help determine the right path for them. For instance, they could start by tackling general education requirements at a two-year school and then transfer to a four-year school (and potentially save thousands in tuition expenses).

2. Estimate how much their education will cost.
Talk to your child to get a sense of what schools they’re considering. What is the tuition for each? There can be a significant difference in cost between in-state and out-of-state or public and private schools. Remember there is more to consider than tuition, room and board and textbooks. Depending on where they might go, your child may have additional transportation costs. It’s also a good idea to estimate lifestyle expenses like entertainment and clothes – as well as set expectations for what you will and won’t help pay for.

3. Find financial aid your child may be eligible for.
There’s plenty of aid available to students applying for college – the key is to find it. The first step is to fill out the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is what determines how much financial aid a student is eligible for based on several factors, including what their parents can contribute. Need-based financial aid can include grants, loans and student employment. The FAFSA can qualify your student for federal student loans (more on that later). For information about the FAFSA, including deadlines, read “What to know about applying for financial aid.” Next, look for scholarships. There are several scholarship search tools available, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship tool . There are scholarships based on a variety of factors, including merit, group identity (high school seniors, women, etc.) and even characteristics like left-handedness. Make sure you and your child start early, ideally during the summers of their junior and senior years of high school. Also make sure to avoid any scholarship services that charge a fee for their services. They’re more than likely to be a scam. Make note of deadlines to ensure you submit on time.

4. Figure out how much you can pay out of pocket.
If you have a 529 plan or some other college savings fund, determine how much of it you want to apply toward your child’s education. If you are considering offsetting some of their expenses with your income, it’s a good idea to create a budget to determine what you can afford to contribute. Perhaps your child can work full-time in the summer or part-time during the school year to help cover some of the expense. The more you can pay upfront, the less you’ll pay in student loan interest in the future.

5. Consider loans to cover the rest of what you’ll owe.
After exploring all potential funding sources, you may still have a gap to cover. You can consider taking out loans as the last step in your plan. There are two types of student loans: federal and private. Federal student loans typically offer the lowest interest rates and several protections for borrowers, making them a strong choice for financing education costs. You must fill out the FAFSA in order to be considered for these loans. The FAFSA can also qualify your child for subsidized loans, in which case the government would pay accrued interest for the loan while your student is in school. With unsubsidized loans, the student is responsible for paying the accrued interest.

If a federal student loan does not fully fill the gap, you may consider private student loans. These are offered by banks, credit unions, state agencies and schools and are not subsidized by the federal government. Interest rates, repayment options and other features will vary from lender to lender. Make sure you evaluate a number of lenders before making a decision.

Funding a college education can be overwhelming, but you have options, and there are many resources available to you and your family. You want the best for your child, and by taking these steps, you can put them in a better financial position as they start college. A personal banker can help you review your situation and find the right course of action for you.

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