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Your ultimate college guide: Prep, acceptance, attendance, and after

Allen Wastler

Posted on August 14, 2023

Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Ultimate college guide

It’s easy to think of college as a one-and-done life experience. But that may be a little misleading. It’s a process. And one that needs financial attention every step of the way.

Indeed, there are specific stages to the whole college experience. And how you handle one stage, either as the student or the one guiding the student, will likely have ramifications for what follows. And each phase involves significant time. Consider that you have to:

Each stage has its own set of costs and certain kinds of financial decision-making.

Uncomfortable truths about college saving

Here’s a guide to what those factors may involve.

Preparation: 529s and loans

Based on recent trends, tuition costs by 2037 could be as much as $133,000 for a four-year public university and $262,000 for a four-year private school (not including fees or room and board). That’s a hefty cost, and one that many families would find challenging to handle, depending on their circumstances and time frame. (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)

However, college-savings programs with tax incentives designed to help ease the burden are available. Some types are quite specialized (like custodial accounts and Coverdells). But probably the most well-known are 529 college savings programs. It pays off to study them, especially for new parents:

Unfortunately, many families don’t take advantage of 529 plans. Results from the latest MassMutual College Planning and Savings Study reveal that just 28 percent of families who expect their kids to attend a college or university intend to use vehicles like 529 plans to save. Most families are far more likely to use traditional savings accounts, which offer no tax benefit and currently offer very low interest rates. (Related: Pros and cons of non-college accounts)

Of course, as the entry point for college approaches, there are other financing options available to consider, especially if individual resources and savings fall short.

And there may be special circumstances that can also affect the college funding picture. These may involve family situations or a student’s ability to qualify for scholarships.

Getting in: Stress and choices

Every college-minded student and parent knows the application process can be grueling. Dealing with the stress can be a weighing factor on emotions and finances. Beyond test scores and extracurricular activities to round out an application, there can be cost items to consider. For instance, will hiring a college admissions counselor help? Or additional sports efforts?

At the same time, there are opportunities to think about how your choice of college may affect your finances and your future. These can range from what certain colleges may offer in terms of aid to what kind of college may be most beneficial to your career ambitions in the long run.

Of course, it’s at this point that some people decide college may not be the course they want to take. Or they want time to pursue other ambitions before resuming their education.

Attending school: Budgeting and studying

Once enrolled, financial considerations don’t stop. Beyond basic student loan management from semester to semester, there will be budgeting for things like meal plans, books, and living arrangements. There are also opportunities to reduce the overall cost of college through economization and taking advantage of various studying abroad or summer programs that may be available.

After college, debt and career

Unfortunately, many college graduates leave school with a significant debt burden. In fact, according to the College Board, 59 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients who took loans to get through school graduated with an average of $28,500 in debt in 2017, the latest data available.

That makes debt management a priority for most new graduates.

With the recent pandemic, some student debt was put on hold. However, albeit with ongoing legal challenges, that hiatus is set to end.

And with that, there are refinancing and repayment options that may help, but they need to be carefully studied to understand their consequences.

Of course, the goal is that most graduates will have some sort of career that they are embarking on. There, too, some financial decisions will have to be considered.

With hope, college will have been a positive experience. And then, graduates can look ahead to helping their old college and the next generation.

Discover more from MassMutual…

Financial goals and debt management

How to create a budget

5 personal finance blunders to avoid


The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.