Has there ever been a year as hotly anticipated as 2021? And among all the new year’s resolutions to get back to living our best lives as soon as we can– travel, time with friends and family, in-person school– might I suggest some resolutions for families of college-bound children? I’ve divided them by age range to make it easy for you to pick a few that are appropriate for your family.

Any Age

  • Open a 529 account, if you don’t already have one. Did you know that children with savings dedicated to college— even very small amounts– enroll in and graduate from college at higher rates than those who don’t? If you’re confused about which 529 to choose, here’s how to decide. If your state offers a state income tax benefit, that’s usually the best place to start investing. If not, look for plans with low fees and broadly diversified investment options like Utah’s my529. All 529 savings accounts can be used at all the same schools.
  • Already have a 529? Add a monthly contribution or increase your existing one. An extra $10 per month will yield an additional $1,500 or so to your account in 10 years. And if you add state income tax deductions and tax-free withdrawals to compound growth, the benefits add up to even more.
  • Use your 529’s gifting page to let family and friends know they can contribute to your child’s education, too. Many states even allow residents who gift to others’ accounts to take the tax deduction for their contributions, too.

Middle School

  • Talk to your student about college. Not just, “You’re going to go to college” but why college is important. Sure, it’s important from a career perspective, but there are plenty of intangibles as well: exposure to new people and ideas, developing independence, exploring the world. Think of the things you value most from your own educational journey and share them with your child.

High School Freshmen/Sophomores

  • Discuss college costs and your expectations around them. How much do you expect them to contribute? How much are you willing to contribute?
  • Research your state schools’ financial aid policies, both need-based and merit. Do these schools offer merit aid based on weighted or unweighted GPA? Is your student tracking towards those awards?
  • Review the FAFSA formula and identify any opportunities to make adjustments that could benefit you in the financial aid process. Since you don’t know at this point where you’ll attend (or even apply), it’s helpful to assume that you could be eligible for aid somewhere and plan accordingly– especially since the most important planning needs to happen now, not senior year.
  • Do net price calculators for schools that you think might be of interest. These will help you get a gauge for what aid you might expect and what schools are or are not within your budget.
  • Visit some colleges once that’s an option, even if it’s just local schools. At a minimum, this can help you get a frame of reference for big vs small, liberal arts colleges vs research universities, and different approaches to student life and engagement.
  • Take the PSAT as a sophomore. This one is a freebie for sophomores and will help you to understand whether some test prep is in order. (Remember that test optional is primarily for admissions; many scholarships will continue to use the SAT and ACT.)

Junior Year

  • Make a plan for testing, including the PSAT and SAT/ACT. Based on sophomore year PSAT scores, decide whether test prep is a good investment and how best to approach it. There are tons of great online resources such as Khan Academy, in addition to books, tutors, test prep services and more.
  • Start narrowing down your list of schools to apply to. Research their aid policies– do they give merit or only need-based? What scholarships are available? Do the net price calculator to determine if the school is a financial fit.
  • Review the Common App and Coalition App essay prompts and previous supplemental essay prompts from the schools you’re interested in. (The Common App and Coalition App prompts don’t change a whole lot from year to year so you can definitely plan ahead with these.)
  • In the spring, reach out to teachers whom you’re planning to ask for letters of recommendation to find out what they need from you and by when in order to write the letters on time.

Senior Year

  • Talk about your family’s college budget now, before acceptances come out, so that your student knows what their aid package needs to look like in order to accept.
  • Start developing your cash flow plan for college: How much savings can you spend each year, how much can you pay out of pocket, will you be borrowing? In thinking about spending from cash flow, include expenses for your student that you won’t be paying for any more such as sports, activities, tutoring, etc., as well as what discounts you might be eligible such as for car insurance.
  • Enjoy right now! It’s so easy to focus on getting responses from colleges in a short time, but right now everything is still possible so take a deep breath and embrace this moment! You’re in a great time so enjoy it while it’s here. Here is my two cents on this time period, from two years ago when I was there.