As back to school time has arrived, high schoolers (especially seniors) shift into high gear for their college application process. For most of their junior year, they have been (or will be) working with their counselors to find the school that's the right fit.
School visits have been made and a short list of colleges and universities is now in place.
But what about money? Mom and Dad (and possibly grandparents) might have set aside some money, but, in most cases, not nearly enough.
Everyone's secret wish is that the colleges will magically make up the difference between what the family can afford and the price of the chosen college.
The formal process to find out whether that money will appear usually begins in the fall of the student's senior year of high school. After Oct. 1, each family who has a college-bound student for the following fall should be filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form.
This form is generally prepared online, and asks detailed questions about the income and assets of both the parents and the student.
This form is filed with the Federal Department of Education. They then compute a number called the Expected Family Contribution, which is what most colleges use as a guideline to determine what, if any, need-based aid they can offer from governmental resources and monies provided by the college itself.
The problem is most colleges do not meet 100 percent of the need between what the Expected Family Contribution says they can afford and the retail price of the college.
Truth be told, there aren't a lot of families who can even afford what the Department of Education says they can pay. It is this gap that can take a large bite out of previous savings or force parents to put retirement savings on hold.
That's why it's important to begin planning well before your student's senior year in high school. Making good choices about ownership and types of assets, doing what you can to control income, and good planning might help qualify you for more aid and help reduce your income taxes as well.
In order to prepare for the process properly, start your savings as early as possible and your planning no later than your student's freshman year.
Remember, every dollar you can preserve from going to the cost of college will be there when it comes time for you to retire.
Luke Gawronski, a financial planner with Barnum Financial Group, is a registered representative of and offers securities, investment advisory and financial planning services through MML Investors Services, LLC. Member SIPC.