New Parents: Start Saving for Your Kid's College Now

Roughly 70% of the class of 2012 graduated with student loan debt, and the average debt load was $29,400. That doesn’t mean those students or their parents didn’t save for college, but perhaps they wished they had set aside a little more.

An informal poll from the National Financial Educators Council showed that many Americans think it’s best to start saving for children’s college educations as soon as they are born — 82% of the 509 survey respondents expressed this opinion.

While it’s not a nationally representative study, the results touch on a smart strategy for all consumer saving plans: Start early. As for the rest of the survey respondents: 6% said to start saving when a child starts grade school, 1% said saving should start as the student enters high school and 1% said parents should not pay for their kids’ college educations. Six percent were undecided. The results were collected from the open survey posted online from Nov. 21, 2012, through Nov. 6, 2013.

Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of a college education increased 35%, according to the 2011 Digest of Education Statistics. That figure, adjusted for inflation, includes public and private, for-profit and not-for profit four-year and two-year institutions.

Over the course of a decade, the cost of an undergraduate degree from a public institution increased by 42%. From academic years 2000-2001 to 2010-2011, the price of tuition, room and board at four-year public schools grew roughly 6% each year — at that rate, a four-year undergraduate degree from a public institution will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a private education will likely be double that.

That’s a price tag no one should ignore, because the longer you wait to save, the more pressed for cash your child will be when he or she graduates  from high school.

There are a lot of ways to pay for college, including 529 plans, general savings accounts, scholarships, student loans and — this is a big one — choosing an affordable school. Student loans are a great tool when managed responsibly: paying them on time can actually help you build credit. But things get messy when students take out more than they can reasonably expect to pay back and start missing payments.

While new parents may be focused on the immediate costs associated with welcoming a child into their lives, each passing year leaves less time to save those hundreds of thousands of dollars, and 18 years isn’t a lot of time to build up those reserves in the first place.

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