Planning for College Expenses

By Laura M. Frey, LMFT, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Family Sciences, University of Kentucky and Jennifer Hunter, Ph.D., University of Kentucky Family Finance Extension Specialist

Roughly two-thirds of students enroll in college the fall after graduating from high school. For many of us, planning for college expenses often gets put on the back burner while trying to pay for other expenses that occur during high school.

As parents, we often have to pay for extracurricular activities, sports, or possibly a car when our teenagers begin driving. Managing these expenses means we often forget or simply do not have the resources to save for college.

Students may choose to apply to a wide range of colleges and universities. Some choose to attend smaller, community colleges while others choose liberal arts colleges or large universities. Students must also decide whether to enroll full-time or part-time. Regardless of which option a student chooses, one thing remains true: college is expensive. Preparing for college expenses can be stressful, and this stress can cause some students to feel as though they cannot afford to attend college. However, there are several steps you can take to estimate college expenses and develop a plan for how to pay for them.

How Much Will Your Teen Need?

The first step in estimating college expenses is to narrow down the possibilities of school choices. After making a list of places where your child wants to apply, consider the key factors that will influence the cost of each.

  • Research the average tuition rates. Private colleges will often have the highest tuition rates. Larger universities will often cost less than private schools but may still be more than small, liberal arts colleges. The most affordable option is often a local community college. Even if your child has his or her heart set on an expensive school, be realistic about the expenses and your ability to afford them. Your child could also attend a community college for the first two years before transferring to a larger university to help reduce costs.
  • Take into account the location of each college. Is the school in-state (within the state where you are a resident) or out-of-state? Rates for students who legally reside out of state are often higher than for those who live in the same state. Also, will your child be able to continue living at home while commuting to school each day? Or, will your child need to pay for a place to live and food (referred to as “room and board”) while attending school? 

Develop a Plan for College Expenses

  • Investigate college scholarships. A great place to start is in the guidance counselor’s office at your child’s high school. There are a range of scholarships related to a variety of student characteristics; academic achievement, sports, artistic talents, race, gender, and other circumstances, such as financial need. Some universities also list scholarships specific to their school on their webpage. Scholarships can vary a lot based on how much money they award. However, pay attention to scholarships for small amounts of money as well because they can help cover the costs of books, travel expenses, or unique opportunities. Additional online scholarship and college resources can provide more information about the scholarships that are available: College Prowler (, Sallie Mae (, and Scholarship Zone (
  • Seek out “free money.” Some financial grants are also available for students who qualify for financial assistance. By filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will receive information about whether your child qualifies for federal or state grants ( These grants are different from student loans because grants do not have to be paid back, i.e. “free money.” This application is often due by the March prior to when your student will enroll.
  • Research student loans. Another benefit you will receive from submitting a FAFSA is that you will learn whether your teen is eligible for student loans. Loans are borrowed money that your teen can use for college or career school that he or she must eventually repay with interest. To receive federal student loans, your teen will need to (1) have a high school diploma, GED, or proof of completion of high school education in a homeschool setting; (2) be accepted or enrolled at a college or university, and (3) maintain good academic progress. Additional eligibility requirements include having a social security number, having registered with the selective service (for males), and being a U.S. citizen or national or permanent resident status. By submitting FAFSA, you will be notified of the amount of money your teen can borrow. Read carefully to determine whether the loans are based on financial need or whether they accrue interest during or after your teen graduates from college.

Additional Resources

Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Fast facts: Back to school statistics.

U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Federal student aid: Frequently asked questions.

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