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College Prep: It's Never Too Early to Start!

Earning a degree or certificate can open many doors. It's never too early to help your child imagine and plan for a bright future. Here are some helpful tips from the state of Tennessee.

Lay the Foundation for College

Tennessee offers several programs to help parents plan for the college education of a child, at any age, as well as information about scholarships, financial aid and other resources for parents whose children will begin college soon.

Families should begin the conversation about college with their children at a young age. Experts recommend that parents start introducing children to the concept of college during middle school, if not before. One option: Go to a college sporting event or other activity that can set the stage for talking about what a college is and the role it can play in a community. Letting children see a campus and talking about the “grown-up” qualities of college life can help them get excited about eventually attending college. If your child is in high school, CollegeForTN.org can help them with everything from thinking about careers to the college application process.

Start Saving

Begin a college savings fund, such as a 529 plan, early. A 529 plan, which is a little like a 401(k) plan, is a special savings account operated by a state or educational institution that allows you to set aside money for a child’s college education. That money isn’t subject to taxes as long as you eventually use it on education expenses such as tuition. Tennessee’s 529 plan, the TNStars College Savings Program, lets you open an account with as little as $25.

Explore Tennessee Resources

The Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation provides parents and students with information about financial aid and other resources available to Tennessee residents. There are several needs-based and merit-based financial resources available to students, including Tennessee Education Lottery scholarships, grants and loan forgiveness programs.

Take Steps as Your Child Grows

Preparing for college can start as early as the birth of your child. Here are steps you can take as your child grows.

Ages 0 to 4:

  • Learn about savings options for college.
  • Calculate estimated college costs and savings potential.
  • Start a savings fund for college.

Ages 5 to 10:

  • Continue college savings (or get started).
  • Consider periodic methods for investing (automatic investments, birthdays, holiday presents, etc.).
  • Students can begin career exploration and build on their strengths.

Ages 11 to 14:

  • It’s never too late to start saving for college!
  • Students can begin planning their high school courses.
  • Prepare for college and career pathway requirements.
  • Talk to your child about effective habits and strategies for succeeding in high school.

Ages 15 to 17:

  • Begin to explore postsecondary schools and majors.
  • Connect with a school counselor for graduation and college requirements.
  • Maintain good academic status and standardized test scores.
  • Students and parents should begin looking at financial aid options (scholarships, grants, 529 college savings plan contributions, etc.).

Ages 18+:

  • Graduate from high school.
  • Students and parents should determine how savings will meet college expenses.
  • Complete postsecondary school applications.
  • You can use CollegeForTN.org to apply to schools online.
  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as October 1 of the student’s senior year in high school.
  • Meet with your postsecondary advisers and financial aid representatives.

Look at Financial Aid Options

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid offers many federal student aid programs to alleviate the costs of a college education, including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other related expenses. To find out whether a student is eligible for funds awarded through federal and state agencies, a parent or the student will need to complete the FAFSA as early as October 1 of the student’s senior year in high school. Based on information submitted in the FAFSA, postsecondary institutions determine financial aid eligibility for enrolling students.

When and How to Apply for Financial Aid

Before applying, a parent and the student should both create an FSA ID (username and password). An FSA ID gives you access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems and can serve as your legal signature. Next, gather this helpful list of documents to complete the FAFSA application. Once the FSA ID has been created and you have access to the necessary documents, you are ready to complete the FAFSA form online. Or, to request a paper application, call 800-4FED-AID (800-433-3243). After you submit your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) and your information will be sent to the colleges you list on the form. This report provides information about financial aid eligibility, including the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is used to determine the approximate amount the family is expected to contribute to the student’s education costs each year based on the information provided for the FAFSA for that year. Families need to complete the FAFSA annually. For best results, learn as much as you can about the FAFSA and the financial aid process.

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