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Worried about Paying for College? Teens Have College Cost Anxiety, Too

I can count on one of my children to save their earnings and the other to spend theirs. Such is life as a parent of teenagers.

For many teens, life’s financial realities become clearer as they approach college. They believe that college costs too much, and that leads to anxiety. A recent College Board survey found that about 80% of graduating seniors felt the biggest challenges facing them were the cost of college tuition. Many teens wonder, “Can I afford college?”

If you’re worried about paying for college, consider these tips from experts to help you reduce some of that anxiety—yours and theirs.

How to Afford College

Prepare early

My friend Sharon has kids similar to mine: one is a spender; the other, a saver. Although both are out of college now, she sees how college expenses affected their lives as young adults. Her daughter (the spender) attended school away from home, incurring debt she’s still paying off. Sharon’s son attended a community college for two years, then finished at a four-year university. Although he incurred some loan debt, he paid it off quickly. Both found well-paying jobs in their fields, yet life in their 20s saw one living at home and the other buying a condo.

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“As a single mom, I did what I could to help, but I also wanted them to have some skin in the game and contribute,” says Sharon. “I don’t know if we had a true understanding of how much it would cost to get through college, though. In hindsight, I wish we had utilized more of the resources that are out there.”

These resources have become more robust in recent years, with financial institutions offering online calculators that map out strategies to reduce debt load.

“Today’s teens see how the generation before them acquired debt that eclipses earnings,” says Tim Gorrell, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, which manages Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage. “They want to make better decisions, including choosing a school and major that helps minimize their debt.”

The College Board survey numbers back this up: Close to 90% of respondents were concerned about going into debt after college.

That’s where planning comes in.

Plan together

Some amount of anxiety isn’t necessarily bad. As my friend’s example shows, it assures that kids have “skin in the game.” When teens invest in their education, they learn to spend wisely—a skill that can last a lifetime.

“Getting kids involved in the planning sets the expectation that, ‘We’re saving for whatever comes after high school.’ It reinforces that there is a next step,” says Gorrell. He suggests regularly reviewing savings and goals with your teen. This can include calculating costs for potential schools and individual classes.

“Again, this is where online tools help,” Gorrell notes. “The CollegeAdvantage website offers resources to help parents and students map out the possibilities.” Many universities have similar planning tools.

Don’t overlook scholarships

Unfortunately, the College Board survey found that over one-third of high school graduating seniors did not apply for any scholarships. These students cited lack of information as a main reason.

Scholarships are not only valuable; they’re also plentiful, even if you’re not a straight-A student. “You’re a left-handed cello player? Maybe you enjoy knitting? There’s probably a scholarship for you,” says Gorrell.

Students can search for opportunities online and ask their guidance office for assistance on local scholarships. The College Board offers an online tool for finding scholarships., and the U.S. Department of Education are other good resources.

“It’s wise for students to invest their energy in researching scholarships,” says Gorrell. “Parents can play a role by encouraging their child to seize these opportunities. It’s one more way parents can help children plan for the future.”

Julie Grippo Schuler lives in Medina, Ohio with her high school son and middle school daughter.

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