Going to college is an important step in your child’s career and future earning power. One of the biggest hurdles for you as parents, however, is the staggering cost of a four-year education—and it’s only increasing each year. The average cost for tuition and room and board at a public university was $34,000 in 2016, and that didn’t include fees, textbooks, or anything else like living expenses. Private schools were averaging $44,000 per year. The question for parents isn’t “Where will my child go to college?” but “How will I pay for it?”
Thankfully, there are a few tips you can use to maximize your resources—and minimize the amount.

First, Figure Out How Much College Will Cost You

Before you start worrying about where the funds will come from for your child’s education, you should find out how much you’ll actually need. It’s good to know the average cost of school, but you’ll also want to check out the individual schools your child is considering attending.

Each school’s costs, to include living expenses, are published each year as the total Cost of Attendance, or COA. That figure can be used as a benchmark for how much it will realistically cost for your child to attend for one academic year. Once you have an idea of what it will cost, you can start looking at ways to find the money.

Utilize Resources That Will Shoulder Some of the Cost

Your next step is to help your child complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It’s required for all federal financial aid—and you won’t want to miss out on those funds. The FAFSA offers a clear picture of your family’s financial need, and based on your data, your child could receive thousands in grant money that doesn’t need to be repaid; it’s essentially free money for school.
Another option to consider is applying for a scholarship. There are literally thousands of them offered every year in the U.S. to eligible students. Each scholarship program has its own criteria; some are offered to students from a specific location or part of a demographic. Others are given for academic performance, or even based upon what field your child plans to study.

Because scholarships are usually competitive, you’ll want to make sure that your child submits all of the necessary paperwork in the application package and includes any essays or supporting documentation to maximize their chances of being awarded funds. Scholarships, like grants, do not need to be paid back; for the price of a few hours of time and effort, your child could get part of their college paid for.

See If You Can Pay Anything Up Front

Once you’ve seen how much your child can receive in grants and scholarships, it’s time to look at your own finances to determine how much you can contribute. Some parents can pay the entire amount of college for their child; others cannot pay anything. Most parents, however, can contribute some of the cost. If you’ve been saving for your child’s education, now is the time to dip into those savings.
Be honest with yourself and your child about what is realistic for your family. You may have other children to support, or you may be in a position that does not allow you to pay much towards school. Whatever the situation is, be clear and open about what you can do—and if you commit to paying an amount, keep your word.

Look into Student Loans

If you’re finding that scholarships, grants, and your own contribution is still leaving your child short, you’ll need to consider taking out a student loan.

There are two kinds of student loans—federal and private. Federal loans are further broken down into subsidized and unsubsidized, which deals with whether the government will pay the accruing interest on the loan, or if it will be capitalized on the balance while your child is in school. They also come with extra benefits such as flexible repayment plans.
Private student loans, offered by banks, credit unions, and other lenders, are a bit more rigid in their administration. Structured more like a traditional loan, private student loans lack the same flexibility as federal loans and are often more expensive in terms of fees and interest rates.

Whatever option you choose, it’s important to borrow responsibly, regardless of whether you or your child take out the loan in question. Not paying the loan back in a timely manner can have dire consequences; your student could have a hard time getting some types of jobs or renting an apartment, and you could find yourself unable to get any more credit extended.
College is expensive, but with some planning, research, and smart financial decisions, you can help your child achieve those educational goals.