I’m a Single Mom. How Can I Help My Son Pay For College?

Our editor-in-chief 'makes cents' of how to help a child pay for college

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The Balance/Alice Morgan

Dear Kristin,

I'm a single mom who has a kid going away to college in less than three years. He's currently a sophomore in high school. I have some money set aside for him in a 529 plan, and we'll probably do one year, if not two, of community college (because you get a year for free in California). Any tips on how to help him pay for college while making the financial burden easier? Thanks!


Dear Robyn,

This is a great question. Many high school students will have college acceptances rolling in over the next few months, and with them, the big question of how to actually pay it. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost for one year of public college was about $11,000 for a two-year institution and upwards of $26,000 for a four-year institution in the 2018-19 school year. Yikes. That was pricey then, and the costs will likely only be higher when your son goes to college.

You’ve already done two things that I would recommend to make college more affordable: setting aside money in a 529 plan savings account for your son’s college, and making sure he takes advantage of free tuition in your state by first going to community college. 

You say you’re putting aside money in the 529 account, but you didn’t mention how much. There aren’t contribution limits to a 529 plan, so consider putting in as much as you can afford to contribute until your son attends school, up to the total you think you’ll need. You can also supplement the 529 account by opening a Coverdell ESA. Unlike a 529 plan, the money in this type of account can be withdrawn to help pay for education expenses right now while your son is still in high school. 

The next step I’d recommend is to make sure you don’t leave any money on the table that could be available to you from the government. It might be surprising, but according to a 2021 study by student loan provider Sallie Mae, only 68% percent of families reported completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2020 to 2021 school year. The study also noted that the FAFSA completion rate has been declining in recent years, in part because some families believe they won’t qualify for assistance. Filling out the FAFSA will ensure you receive financial assistance from the government, if you qualify. The FAFSA may also help your son get a work-study job or a part-time job throughout college. 

Finally, even though your son is a few years away from college, I would recommend hunting around for other scholarships now. Some might have requirements that your son will need to fulfill while he’s still in high school, giving you both a head start on access to billions of dollars in private scholarships available to U.S. students each year.  

There are two things I would recommend you avoid: taking out private loans and tapping into your retirement savings account (if you have one). Private student loans tend to have higher interest rates than federal student loans and don’t come with the same borrower protections, like forbearance or flexible repayment options. You also don’t want to pull from your retirement account. Not only will you have to pay taxes on that money (including an early withdrawal penalty tax), but you run the risk of missing your retirement goals by doing so.

Though starting while your son was still in diapers is the best way to save for college, there are still options in the next few years to make this more affordable. You’re on a great track already, so keep it up!

Good luck!

If you have questions about money, Kristin is here to help. Submit an anonymous question and she may answer it in a future column.

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