Planning for college: Considerations for high school freshmen and sophomores

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®, 08/29/17

Planning for a college education may be one of the most significant challenges for families.

It can also be a source of stress. According to The Princeton Review, paying the college bill is the top concern for parents and students.

Preparation may help families feel more confident, and the process of planning for college for parents and students can begin as early as freshman and sophomore years in high school.

Considerations during freshman year of high school:


  • Increase saving in a 529 plan.
  • Encourage grandparents and other family members to get involved with college savings.
  • Research prepaid tuition plans that lock in rates at in-state public colleges.
  • Set goals to achieve the honor roll and maintain a solid GPA for the next four years.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities. College admissions officers are increasingly looking for a student’s involvement and leadership in a few areas, rather than sporadic participation across many clubs or activities.
  • Meet with a guidance counselor and learn how to research colleges.
Considerations during sophomore year of high school:


  • Continue saving in the 529 plan and review the asset allocation to keep investments on track with the time horizon.
  • Compare living expenses of targeted schools, as costs can vary widely by location.
  • Consider tax-smart strategies and the impact of income on federal financial aid.
  • Beginning with next year’s tax return, all income will be considered in the aid calculation. For example, one-time transactions such as a Roth IRA conversion or the sale of an asset may increase income and jeopardize needs-based financial aid.
  • Begin standardized testing with the PSAT, typically offered in October.
  • Create a course schedule for junior and senior years to include Advanced Placement courses. Selective colleges and universities will require a rigorous academic workload in high school.
  • Research colleges and include international colleges, which may be more affordable.
  • If pursuing athletics, complete online college recruiting forms, contact coaches, and register with the NCAA if appropriate.
A detailed plan may help families stay on track to meet multiple deadlines for college academic and financial applications. Putnam’s investor education piece, “Four-year action plan to prepare for college," outlines year-by-year activities for parents and students to use as a guide throughout high school. Meeting with a financial advisor can also be helpful for families as they review the asset allocation of their 529 college savings plan, navigate the financial aid application process, and calculate the logistics of going to college.