How high school freshmen can start mapping their path to college

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®, 08/24/22

As students transition to high school, the focus on college planning needs to shift a little. While saving for college is still important, there are other action items to consider that can help prepare students for the college decision and application process. This activity begins as early as the freshman year and intensifies in later high school years. If parents and students can put together — and stick to — a plan for the four years of high school, the chances of a successful transition to college can increase.

Students and parents have many things to do during the high school years to prepare for college. On the path to college, students will likely be focused on their academic performance and extracurricular activities. Parents may focus on savings and financing options to meet the cost of a college education.

Start with a plan

Planning for college funding can involve multiple accounts and strategies. Most families rely on a combination of income, savings, and borrowing to cover the costs of higher education.

Preparing for making a decision about college can also involve a range of activities throughout the high school years. Consider our four-year action plan.

Considerations for freshman year

Parents, who started saving early, may already have a plan in place with a range of saving and investment funding options. Most families rely on a variety of sources to cover college costs. In recent years, the total amount of federal financial aid has declined, underscoring the importance of saving as early and often as possible.

Financial priorities for parents

  • Increase saving in a tax-free 529 plan and encourage grandparents and other family members to get involved
  • Consider allocating some savings to other accounts such as custodial UGMA/UTMA for non-qualified 529 plan college expenses, such as transportation costs
  • Research the affordability of college with Putnam's college savings calculator

Action items for students

  • Start thinking about your interests and what you might want to pursue later in life
  • Set goals to achieve the honor roll and maintain a solid GPA throughout high school
  • Participate in extracurricular activities – focus on deeper involvement in a few areas (including work and volunteering) rather than sporadic participation in many different clubs or activities
  • Be aware of your social media presence
  • Make meaningful connections with your guidance counselor and teachers when the opportunity exists

Looking ahead: Considerations for sophomore year

Financial priorities for parents

  • Continue saving in a 529 plan and review asset allocation to ensure the investments are on track with the time horizon for making withdrawals for college
  • Compare living expenses of targeted schools, as costs vary by location
  • Consider tax-smart strategies and the impact of income on federal financial aid (FAFSA), since the aid calculation will be based on income information from next year’s tax return

Action items for students

  • Begin researching colleges online or visiting local campuses to get a sense of preferences, such as an urban or rural campus, and a small or a large school
  • Consider a course schedule for junior and senior year to include Advanced Placement (AP) courses if pursuing more selective colleges
  • If pursuing athletics, complete online college recruiting forms and contact coaches
  • Attend college fairs or informational sessions
  • Open a Roth IRA with summer earnings

A plan can help families stay on track

Having a plan can help families stay on track with savings and academic goals. A timeline can also help families keep pace and not miss key deadlines. The years leading up to the final college decision are important. Students and parents will want to use the time efficiently so they can navigate the process without being overwhelmed.

For more information about 529 plans, see

Putnam 529 plan