How to talk to your kids about college costs

College tuition may be daunting, but so are the conversations about how to pay for it.

Experts say it pays off for parents talk with children early and often about how to cover higher education costs. Here are a few of their tips:

START EARLY: Start talking to your kids as young as possible, said Judith Ward, a senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price.

Casual conversations at an early age about where you went to college and that you are saving for their education helps sets the expectation that they will go. As they grow older, she suggests talking more specifically about how much is being set aside.

BE SPECIFIC: Keith Bernhardt, vice president of Fidelity's college savings program, said that by 9th or 10th grade those conversations should still be positive but more specific in terms of available funds. By 11th grade, talk about schools of interests and look closer into costs and aid options together. Get your financial aid application in early in their senior year and make sure they understand the pros and cons of all options.

Be clear about what you expect them to contribute, too. Bernhardt points out that by getting kids engaged in conversations about college costs early, it's easier to get them involved in saving too, setting aside allowance, portions of gifts or money from jobs.

"Help them to value the idea of going to college by making them part of the process to help pay for it," he said.

SET PARAMETERS: T. Rowe Price found in its research that most kids expect their parents to cover the cost of whatever college they want. However, most parents say they'll only be able to contribute toward some of the expenses and feel bad about it.

It's important for kids to know that they don't just have a blank check for college, Ward said. She suggests setting parameters around what you can contribute and what that realistically can pay for

DISCUSS OPTIONS: Instead of looking at what isn't possible, talk about what is.

An in-state school might offer as competitive a program as an out-of-state choice at a fraction of the price. Or a student may benefit from living at home or attending a local college for a portion of their time.

"It doesn't have to be whatever college at whatever cost," Ward said.

It's very likely that the student, the parent or both will consider taking out loans. Bernhardt reminds people to look closely at the terms of various loans and be wary of taking on too much debt. That can impeded a child's start in life after college or a parent's own plans, including their retirement.

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