Preparing for the final lap before college

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®, 09/06/22


As students get closer to making the final decision about college, the last two years of high school are critical. Both parents and students will be reviewing plans to make sure they are on track to meet goals.

Parents will want to review their financial strategy to meet the costs of college, taking into account current savings, financial aid, scholarships, and loan options. Students face many deadlines for standardized tests and application requirements.

Having an action plan can help families focus on multiple tasks, meet due dates and reduce stress. Putnam has a four-year action plan for parents and students that can be helpful for staying on track.

Considerations for junior year

The junior year is busy as parents research ways to finance college and juniors think more about academic requirements. Since the application process begins during the first half of senior year, a student’s academic record during their junior year is especially important.

Financial priorities for parents

  • Saving and finances
  • Explore different options for funding college, including tapping into home equity if needed Make sure investments within 529 plans are risk appropriate since withdrawals for qualified college expenses will begin shortly
Financial aid Determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for financial aid.* The EFC calculation is based on tax filings from the “base year,” which is the federal tax return two years prior to filing for financial aid.*Note that increases in income in the base year — for example, from the sale of a stock or a Roth IRA conversion — may negatively affect aid.)
  • The Federal Student Aid Estimator on the FAFSA website (studentaid.gov/aid-estimator/) can be a useful tool. Review 529 account ownership to determine if changes are appropriate when considering financial aid. Read more in our investor education piece, “Strategies to make the most of college savings."
  • Research whether targeted colleges require the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile) application as part of their financial aid process. The CSS Profile must be completed in addition to the FAFSA form and requires additional information not included on the FAFSA form (e.g., amount of home equity, family medical expenses)
  • Start compiling information for FAFSA submission including tax returns and information on savings, investments, and assets. Beginning in 2023 there will be changes to the FAFSA process. The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be replaced with the Student Aid Index (SAI)
Action items for students

School-based goals

  • Keep a calendar of tests (PSAT is offered in October; SAT and ACT are typically offered later in the year)
  • Take a prep course or find a tutor for standardized tests
  • Make sure coursework, such as number of AP classes, reflects the academic requirement of targeted schools
  • Start building a resume and include summer employment, volunteer work, internships, and achievements
  • Meet with teachers, coaches, or mentors in-person to request letters of recommendation
Research
  • Research colleges and attend college fairs. Think about an area of interest to pursue as this will help drive the list of colleges
  • Begin college visits in the fall and be sure to connect with the local admissions officer assigned to your area. Get advice from older friends and family who have recently gone through the process

Considerations for senior year

Senior year in high school is always memorable as students focus on one major goal: graduation. For students planning for college, the senior year has many deadlines and final preparations but creating task lists and calendar reminders can keep families on track.

Financial priorities for parents

Saving and finances

  • Ask employer if scholarships are available for children attending college
  • Make sure you have enough liquid assets for college-related expenses. This may require investment transfers within college savings accounts to more conservative options such as a money market fund
  • Identify which savings accounts to tap into first for expenses based on investment, tax, or financial aid considerations. Our investor education piece can be a resource, “Strategies to make the most of college savings.”
  • Research tax credits and deductions that may help defray the cost of college
Financial aid
  • Attend a college aid workshop or meet with a professional college counselor
  • Complete the FAFSA form (between October 1 and June 30). Bear in mind that many states and colleges request FAFSA submission as soon as possible after October 1
Key documents

Have student complete a health care proxy when turning 18 and before going to college. See how to get started with our recent blog, “Packing for college should include legal documents.”

Action items for students

School-based goals

  • Take the SAT and/or the ACT in the fall
  • Review social media accounts to make sure profiles and posted content would not jeopardize an admissions decision
  • Establish a professional presence by creating a LinkedIn profile
Application process
  • Over the summer before senior year, start working on the Common Application and college essay
  • Keep a list of logins/passwords for each school
  • Research application options, including early decision, early action, regular admission, and rolling admission
  • If opting for early decision, apply to colleges as early as November
  • Research and apply for local scholarships from schools, towns, and relevant organizations
Campus visits
  • Find out which schools offer interviews and set up meetings. Even though one on one interviews are not required, they are highly recommended. Schedule campus visits when school is in session to experience daily life on campus. Trim your college list to a few safety, match, and reach schools
  • If pursuing athletics, contact coaches to schedule official on-campus visits in the fall

Seek continued guidance

In taking the final lap before college, the last two years of high school can be critical for a student’s ability to strengthen their applications and make a well-researched decision about college. Parents will review financial strategies to make sure their investments and savings are on track to meet college goals. A valued financial advisor can help in this plan review.

An advisor can also help families understand that financial plans can be flexible. Like many life decisions, a lot can change on the path to college. Students may choose a new field of study or a different college or geography. Families can still optimize their savings and investment strategies to meet new goals. In these cases, a college plan review is even more important.

For more information about 529 plans, see Putnam.com.

Putnam 529 plan

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