This is a general primer for both parents and students on preparing and paying for college in the United States. Meeting any family’s educational dreams includes early planning, disciplined savings and knowledge of how to apply to colleges and obtain financial aid. Once you decide it’s never too late! No matter whatever your situation is there are rarely barriers to getting a college education.

College education pays off in many ways, recent studies show that college students earn more and are less likely to be unemployed. When my son and I attended a Sallie Mae seminar sponsored by Congressman Jim Kolbe recently the speaker showed us the following statistics. A person with a high school diploma earned an average of $30,000 a year; their counterpart with a college degree typically made of $80,000. So any money put forward is a good investment. In addition, the “college experience” –new friends, new challenges, and new accomplishments can provide personal growth and lifelong enrichments.

To prepare for the major decisions about what college to choose the places to begin are the high school guidance counselor, as well as admission counselors and financial aid administrators at the college that are being considered. Good places to start researching are the local library or the Internet. Most school and public libraries have sections devoted to college admissions and financial aid.

Helpful Hints:

Students, throughout high school make sure you turn to your guidance counselor for information about college preparations, tests to take, discuss possible careers, and financial aid. Maintain good grades; create an academic portfolio to keep samples of your best work. Get involved in co-curricular activities; keep records of these activities and awards. When choosing coursework keep your college goals in mind. Planning on playing sports? Abide by the National Colligate Athletic Association requirements. Research colleges, careers; visit campuses if possible. Discuss your post-secondary education plans with your family. Save money for college.

Helpful hints for parents to prepare younger children for college. In addition to saving for college, while your children are young; plan family outings to nearby campuses. Attend cultural arts event, spring fairs, and enroll your child in summer programs like sports or science camps that are located on campus. They may even get to stay in the dorms, learn the lay out of the campus, and students attending summer courses. This will help allay a lot of the apprehensions and take some of the mystery out of attending a large campus community by the time they reach high school.

Here is a basic time line for high school students making preparations for college.

Freshman Year

Parents:Tell the high school guidance counselor on registration day that your child is interested in attending college so class schedules can be balanced with your child’s desired classes and the required classes for college. A good Junior High School should have them prepared with a rough draft of classes your child wants to take. Plans may have changed over the summer so there may be some expected fine tuning.


  • Meet with your guidance counselor and create a plan for the next four years
  • Research courses required for you to take for admissions.
  • Work hard in your classes and buff up that vocabulary.

    Sophomore Year

    Parents: Seek out and find other parents who are or who have recently sent their child off to college. Ask for advice, compare notes, and keep in touch with them for ideas about troubleshooting and short cuts. Attend college fairs with your child.


  • Take college preparatory classes.
  • Attend college fairs.
  • Register and take a practice PSAT. This is a preliminary test that gets you ready for the SAT I, this test is a way for college administrators to judge students with a common measurement.
  • Talk with your guidance counselor about taking the PLAN, this test prepares you for the ACT, similar to the SAT, it’s used for consideration and admission by some colleges and universities.
  • Register and take the June SAT II: Subject Tests, if appropriate.
  • Continue your research into possible careers and candidates for consideration among colleges.

    Junior Year-Fall Semester

    Parents: Attend college fairs with your child. Ask the college representatives for costs of attending their institution; then asked for financial aid information. Most representatives are very nice about providing financial information. Many have endowment funds. CalTech’s representative gave me his personal business card and told my son and I, “We want everyone to have the same opportunity to attend CalTech.” This is the time to begin discussing where your child will be living while attending college. Many students opt to live on campus while others may consider the savings of living at home.


  • Meet with college representatives who visit your school.
  • Keep researching colleges by requesting college catalogs and searching the Web.
  • Come up with a list of at least 10 institutions of higher education that interest you.
  • Generate a general criteria for admission and develop a plan to meet those conditions.
  • Create a personal timeline for college. Include test dates, application deadlines, financial aid deadlines and anything else that may be required by a certain date.
  • Register and study for PSAT, SAT and ACT.
  • Take the PSAT
  • Update your academic portfolio with recent examples of your best work.
  • Start researching financial aid options, including private scholarships. Remember the early bird gets the worm! Develop a cover letter of introduction for scholarship requests. You’ve spent your whole life working hard to get this far; don’t hesitate to toot your own horn! Now it’s time to present yourself in the best possible light and give the people who fund scholarships your top reasons for supporting you as a well-rounded student with well-planned aspirations to attend college and become a contributing member to society. Use a business letter format and the name of the appropriate person you are addressing your request to. Spelling and grammar count! Ask someone to proof read it. My son asked me to draw up a model for him and I was more than happy to do so. The following sample is what he came up with; you might want to use as a guideline.
      Dear “Sir or Madam”:

        I will be graduating in 2004 and at this time I am beginning my quest for applications for scholarships and considering which schools I would like to attend.

        I am currently 16 years old, attend Flowing Well High School in Tucson where I participate in their Mechanical Engineering Mathematical Achievement class for competitions with other schools in the state of Arizona.
        This year I was inducted into the National Honor Roll Society and my name will be announced in their 2002 publication.
        I am also a member of the Future Business Leaders of America.
        My semester courses include; Physics, Pre-Calculus, English US History and an Advanced Placement course in Chemistry through Pima Community College.

        College is expensive and I can use as much help as possible. I plan on attending a college or university to earn a degree in Chemical Engineering. At this time I am considering the California Technical Institute of Technology or Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

        Any information about a scholarship you could provide would be greatly appreciated.


        Students Name
        Phone number
        Email address

    We have had a great deal of response by scholarship providers via email . Use an appropriate address please. Avoid ones like

    If a company approaches you and asks if you would like to use them to help in your search for financial aid or scholarships and charge a fee, be very wary about using their services. Remember the goal here is to save money for college and there are many organizations and web sites that will help students and parents find funding for free.
    See Helpful Resources below.

  • Keep up the hard work; your grades are particularly important this year.
  • Attend college fairs and open houses. Don’t forget to invite your parents.

    Junior Year-Spring Semester

  • Take the SAT I and/or the ACT and/or SAT II, if necessary. Take AP exams.
  • Refine your search for a college by meeting with you guidance counselor, reviewing college materials and attending college fairs.
  • Research and update specific admission criteria.
  • Look into attending summer internship and enrichment opportunities.pao about internships:

    "Summer prior to senior year: Participate in a college summer program, like a Governor's Honors/Scholar Program or something like Rose-Hulman's Operation Catapult. It's the best three to five weeks of your high school life, you meet lots of people, and you get a pretty good idea of what college is like."

  • Make appointments to visit and have interviews with the colleges you are considering; take tours and talk to enrolled students.
  • Before interviewing at a college, practice with your guidance counselor, teacher, employer or friend.
  • Attend financial aid information sessions with parent/mentor/ guardian.
  • Request college admissions applications
  • Design your senior course schedule with classes that are academically challenging.

    Summer Prior to Your Senior Year

    Parents: Encourage your child to keep up the good work be there to answer any questions or allay any concerns that may crop up.


  • Continue to refine your list of potential colleges and universities.
  • Begin preparing for the college application process by collecting writing samples, drafting essays and assembling portfolios.
  • Athletes: Contact coaches at the schools you have chosen and ask about intercollegiate and intramural sports programs and athletic scholarships; complete the NCAA Initial -Eligibility Clearinghouse from of you wish to play Division I or II sports.
  • Consider doing a road trip to visit colleges; take campus tours, ask for interviews, and talk to enrolled students.
  • Take the SAT I, SAT II, or ACT, if necessary.
  • Record and track admissions material; prepare timeline of application and financial aid dead lines.
  • Keep up the search for financial aid options, including searching for private scholarships.

    Senior Year-Fall Semester

    Parents: Be positive; remember it’s their education. Trust them. Be aware that if necessary you will need to provide estimated tax figures by the following January for your child to fill out an application for Federal Student Aid. Decide together where your child will live. If the option to live off campus is made, be sure to drop by the Off Campus Student offices while visiting the various campuses and gather information about commuting by bus and/or parking. Parking permits at the University of Arizona have almost acquired a real estate status!


  • Meet with your guidance counselor and review college plans.
  • Double check that you have all of your admissions and financial aid applications for the schools you’ve picked.
  • Review scholarship deadlines from the schools your are interested in.
  • Many colleges require recommendations, ask the appropriate people to write on your behalf.
  • Submit Early Action or Early Decision application if desired.
  • Register for and take SAT /ACT. Retake your ACT or SAT if needed.
  • Continue attending college fairs, open houses or visiting days.
  • Complete and mail applications for admissions to college, send your transcripts and test scores, essays by deadlines. Keep copies for your records.
  • Obtain a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA from you guidance counselor, or you may visit:
  • Find out of your chosen college requires any other financial aid information.
  • Have official test scores sent to colleges on your list.
  • December begin gathering information for financial aid.

    Senior Year-Spring Semester

    Parents: Enjoy you and your child’s accomplishments! There are Senior pictures to be taken graduation announcements to be made and Senior proms to attend. This is the time for family and friends to celebrate! Open up a checking account and go over how to work a personal budget and how to work a checking account with them for the first few months until you are both comfortable. By now your child may already know a lot about this. Most high school mandatory economic classes should be teaching students how to do this. Ask your child if it was a part of the curriculum, if not bring it to the schools attention. Include teachers, Administrators and the School Board in your complaints so this doesn’t happen to other students.

    Explain to your child the benefits and pitfalls of credit cards. Charge cards are great at getting good credit established and useful in emergency situations. Unfortunately many colleges and universities cannot bar credit card companies from soliciting for new customers on campus. Explain how to stay out of trouble with credit cards reminding them that they could end up paying for poor choices in charges for ten years or more after graduation. Share ideas. Laying the foundations for responsible money management is paramount. Encourage them to use rules of thumb like not charging anything they can’t be repaid within a month. I do this for myself when it comes to using my own credit card. Put the credit card in a plastic container filled with water and place it in the freezer so there is plenty of time to think about how important that purchase is while it's thawing in the kitchen sink.

    About your child’s grades. Even though as a parent you may be footing a large part of the bill remind yourself that your child is an adult now and entitled to their privacy. These are their grades and the student is solely responsible for them, it’s time to allow them to face the consequences for better or worse when it comes to grades. You may ask them for their PIN numbers to access their grades at the college web site, but colleges and universities cannot require them to give that to you or release it to anyone. If a college is releasing this information about student’s grades without the students consent they may be breaking federal laws.

    Because of unexpected financial difficulties our savings for colleges has been severely limited. My sons have been told that they can expect a certain amount of dollars to be sent to the college of their choice per semester over the course of four years, plus they may choose to live at home to save money. I had hopes we would be able to pay for their entire college education, but sometimes life happens! Be sure to take an interest; ask how they’re doing in school. Encourage them to seek help through the college counselors for tutoring or adjusting their schedules to meet their individual needs and desires.


  • Fill out FAFSA and submit it by the end of January. This is very important! Both of Financial Aid Administrators from The University of Arizona and the Pima County Community College emphasized that many colleges fund their financial aid packages on a first come first serve basis. Wait too long and you'll get a financial aid package that doesn't offer much don’t take it too personally if you were late turning in the required information. You can estimate numbers on your FAFSA, go back and adjust the numbers after your parents have done their taxes. Delaying on this means a big difference in bottom line for the amount of money you will be repaying on loans after college graduation. Keep copies for your records.
  • Review your Student Aid Report (SAR), which you’ll receive with four weeks of submitting the FAFSA; take steps to have any errors corrected.
  • Have your fall semester high school transcript sent to the colleges to which you have applied.
  • Take Advanced Placement exams, if necessary.
  • Monitor and follow-up on all applications.
  • Review admission and financial aid offers.
  • By May 1 make your final decisions, notify school, and submit required deposits and documents.
  • Register for classes.
  • Congratulate yourself!

    Helpful Resources

    Over the last three decades researchers say an "estimated 50 million students and their families have borrowed approximately $335 billion under the federal student loan process.” You’re not alone. There are numerous resources available to help parents and students navigate the financial aid maze. Remember there are a whole group of people including parents, step-parents, guardians, mentors, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have supported you over your lifetime with their emotional, financial and professional support. You have an obligation to them and yourself to be diligent when it comes to managing the cost of your education.

    In January and February, after the new FAFSA is distributed, many schools and organizations hold workshops across the country to help people fill out FAFSA forms. Keep an eye out for one of these sessions, as they can be very helpful. Our local community college has one every year; there is no charge for this help.

    More questions about your FAFSA or other federal student aid? You can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID or for the fastest way to apply you can fill out your FAFSA electronically on the Web at

    Web sites offer a variety of services, from free online scholarship searches and financial aid tips to college admission guidelines. In no particular order here is a list of web sites might be useful:

    Government Web sites:
    Non-Government Web site:


    Information in a letter to the author from Southwestern College, “Helpful Hints for Planning Your Entrance into College.”

    Kolbe, Jim. “The Sallie Mae Fund Presents.” Tucson, Arizona, 2002 (Seminar presented at Rincon High School.)

    Sallie Mae Fund. Paying for College, A Guide for Students and Their Families, Pamphlet. October 2002.