Estimate Your College Savings Needs

Don't be daunted by the amount you have to save to pay for a college education. Small amounts of money, if invested early, can become sizable investments through smart planning and compounding.

For example, if you save $200 a month at a 6 percent annual rate of return for your newborn child, you will have more than $76,000 for college when she turns 18.

Estimate How Much You’ll Need to Save

Use our College Savings Calculator to see how early and regular saving can make your money grow. When estimating future college costs, remember to factor tuition, room, board and books into your calculation. If you know where you want your child to go to college, but don't know the current costs, you can use the National Center for Education Statistics' school locator to research the costs. If you are unsure where you want your child to go to college, you can get national public and private school averages from The College Board.

Don’t Forget Financial Aid

As part of saving for college, you need to know whether your child will be eligible for financial aid, which reduces what you may need to save for college.

Smart Tip: Be aware that saving for college might impact financial aid. Any investments or savings can affect federal financial aid eligibility. But the impact on financial aid varies depending on whether the savings belong to the parent or the child. Savings in a parent's name may reduce federal financial aid eligibility by at most 5.64 percent, but assets saved in a child's name may reduce aid eligibility by 20 percent. State 529 accounts owned by a child, or set up as custodial 529 accounts, are treated at the lower 5.64 percent rate. States and private colleges may have their own rules for financial aid, and some states give more favorable treatment to pre-paid tuition plans and other college savings options.

Student Aid on the Web provides details on federal student aid programs, including grants, campus-based aid, work-study programs and loans. The Department of Education also streamlined the process for applying for financial aid, enabling parents and students to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online and monitor results. The FAFSA website also features the FAFSA4caster tool, which estimates in advance how much aid your student could qualify for and how much the family might be expected to pay—referred to as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Another helpful website for understanding financial aid and determining eligibility is FinAid! The SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid.

But not all financial aid is a gift—about one-third of aid consists of loans. While savings may decrease financial aid, you and your child will likely be in a much better financial situation on graduation day if you start saving for college now. The more you save, the less you will need to borrow.

Smart Tip: Beware of Scholarship and Financial Aid Scams. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), financial aid fraud is widespread. Unscrupulous companies and individuals promise or claim to guarantee scholarships, grants or enticing financial aid packages. Many use high pressure sales pitches where you're required to pay in advance or risk losing out on the "opportunity." The FTC says that while some legitimate firms require advance payment for services, they do not guarantee scholarships or grants.

Update: FAFSA Changes

Significant changes have been made to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process that will impact millions of students. Starting with the 2017­–18 application cycle: 

  • Students will be able to submit a FAFSA earlier.  Students will be able to file a 2017–18 FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016, rather than beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. The earlier submission date is a permanent change and lets students complete and submit a FAFSA as early as October 1 every year.
  • Students will use earlier income information. Beginning with the 2017–18 FAFSA, students will be required to report income information from an earlier tax year. For example, on the 2017–18 FAFSA, students (and parents, as appropriate) will report their 2015 income information, rather than their 2016 income information.