College  |  December 16, 2020  |  Jenn Ruiz

Planning for College: How Do You Start?

What you’ll learn
  • Tips on how to start planning for college
  • Average savings –Planners vs. Non planners
  • Most popular planning strategies

Planning for college can be an exciting (or overwhelming) time for families. For some who may not consider themselves “planners,” the mere thought of how to start laying out the financial groundwork can feel daunting.

While choosing the right college or university can be a pivotal moment, determining the most affordable (and responsible) way to pay for it is equally important.

According to research from Sallie Mae and Ipsos, “Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education,” 84% of families believe creating a plan for college is challenging, but planners are 3x as likely to be confident about meeting the cost of higher education.

Planners Vs. Non Planners

Planners are significantly more likely than non-planners to be saving for the student’s higher education (73% vs 19%, respectively) and, among those who have saved, planners have saved nearly twice as much, an average of $28,389, compared to non-planners, $14,999.

Research also found that planners are more likely to say they always knew the student would continue his/her education (46% compared to 38% of non-planners). Nearly half of planners (48%) say they started saving for the student’s education when the student was six or younger.

So, while families benefit from putting a plan together, the question remains: how do you start?

Here are some easy tips and tools to help put the planning process in motion:

Make it a Family Matter

Frequent and honest family conversations are key to the college planning process. In fact, 90% of families report having had the “college talk”. These discussions can include setting expectations on how much college costs, the various expenses associated with college, and who will pay for it.

To help break the ice, here are some questions that can help drive the conversation:

  • What are some reasons people go to college?
  • What do you want to do when you’re an adult and working?
  • Do you think college will help you become a (fill in the blank)?
  • Do you know how much the average college costs today?
  • Do you know about some things we can do to help pay for college, like scholarships?
  • Have you thought about what kind of college you’d like to attend?
  • Did you know you can start off at one college, and finish at another?
  • Let’s talk about who will pay for college, and how we’ll get it done.

Steps Families Have Taken to Plan

Use College Planning Tools

There are tons of great resources out there to help you and your family plan for college. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

There are tons of great resources out there to help you and your family plan for college. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. College Planning Calculator

Sallie Mae’s free College Planning Calculator is an easy-to-use college planning calculator that can help you search for college costs and can help you create a personalized college financial plan based on your own or family’s situation. Some features include:

  • See the full cost of college, not just tuition.
  • Factor savings, scholarships, grants, and loans into your plan.
  • See guidelines for a loan payment compared to the salary needed to support it.
  • Save your plan and you can review, revise, and update it at any time while you put that plan into action.

2. Scholarship Search

Finding scholarships online is great but can be time consuming. Use online search tools that do most of the work for you! This Scholarship Search Tool is free to use and you can access more than 6 million college scholarships, worth up to $30 billion!

3. College Cost Calculator

While the cost of going to college may generally continue to rise, there are tools to help you estimate future costs, like this College Cost Calculator. This will help you have the talk about college costs early with your children, keeping a healthy expectation of what costs might look like down the road.

4. Countdown to College Checklist

In addition to putting a financial plan in place, there are other things to keep track of when planning for college. The Countdown to College Checklist is an easy and stress-free way to help your entire family stay on top of important dates and deadlines during the college research and application process. The checklist begins with to-dos for your junior year of high school, all the way through to the end of senior year.

Prioritize Your College Choices

Academic programs, location, financial aid packages, sports, campus, and class – these are just some of the factors that may come into play when narrowing your student’s list of potential schools.

Of families who have started talking about college, 63% have discussed the student’s top schools of choice. So, hear your student out and be sure to find out what’s most important to them, and, if you’re a part of the selection decision, be clear about what’s most important to you.

Popular Strategies to Save for College

Did you know that family income and savings cover more than half (52%) of college costs? It’s true! And if you’re wondering what some of the best college saving options, here are a few suggestions.

One of the most common college savings accounts is a 529 plan. In fact, more than a third of parents (37%) used a college savings account, like a 529, to help pay for college, up from 21% in 2018-19.

529 plans are a popular option for families because they offer tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals (if savings are used for qualified education expenses). Qualified education expenses include tuition, certain room and board expenses, fees, and the cost of books, supplies, and equipment. These plans also offer more generous annual contribution limits for savers which can in turn help you save what you need to make college happen! On average, families who used 529 plans saved $25,038.

Other common strategies to save for college are non-specialty accounts such as checking accounts, CDs, U.S. savings bonds, and noninstitutional savings.

While many of these savings tactics are a great way to get started, be sure to do your homework to find out which option will best suit your families’ college needs.

Don’t forget about resources like scholarships, grants, and financial aid, which can help cover costs associated with higher education. Apply for them early (and often), so you don’t miss out on any free money!

Remember, planning for college is an exciting time, and putting a plan in place early will help your family maximize every dollar while creating a positive experience for your student.


Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Sallie Mae makes no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect Sallie Mae’s view or endorsement. Consult your own attorney or tax advisor about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.