Lisa Scott of Sparrows Point has seen young relatives graduate from college and struggle to keep up with $100,000 in education debt.
"Their current jobs do not allow them to pay that debt" said Scott, area marketing director for Chick-fil-A in Maryland. "The stress on them is horrific and so much, when it should be the most exciting time of their life, coming out of college and ready to take a bite out of the world."
Scott, 48, doesn't want the same to happen to her 7-year-old daughter Lilly.
A couple of years ago, Scott started putting $4,500 away annually in Maryland's prepaid tuition plan, which allows families to pay in advance for college based on today's prices at the state's public colleges. And given Lilly's interest in becoming a veterinarian, Scott said she and her fiance will start setting aside even more next year.
According to an annual study released last week by Fidelity Investments, 69 percent of parents of have started to save for college, the highest percentage since the Boston-based mutual fund company began polling families in 2007. Back then, 58 percent of parents saved for college.
"The economy has been getting better. People are on a more solid foundation," said Keith Bernhardt, Fidelity's vice president of college planning.
At the same time, he said, parents have heard stories of students burdened by steep debt and are trying to prevent that happening to their own kids.
But many parents still aren't saving enough. Parents said they plan to pay 62 percent of the total cost of college, but Fidelity found they were on target to meet only one-third of that goal. Families on average set aside $5,000 last year.
The Fidelity study is based on a survey of more than 2,500 families nationwide whose children are age 18 and younger and expect to attend college.
Caroline Bright, director of financial aid at McDaniel College, said she has noticed a change among parents and students.
"They are more cautious about borrowing," Bright said. "Maybe all the negative press about students and parents getting over their head on student loan borrowing has made families more aware of the need to save."
Big tuition bills are weighing on parents' minds.
"I have a rising [high school] senior and a rising junior. I lose sleep at night," said Tim Hayden, coordinator of the office of school counseling for Baltimore County's public schools. He also has a daughter who is in seventh grade.
Hayden and his wife started saving each month for college in mutual funds when their first two children were very young. But the couple's salaries back then were lower, and they weren't able to salt away enough to keep up with today's steep tuition, said Hayden, who recently visited colleges with his sons.
Out-of-state public schools can be around $40,000 a year, he said, while private universities run $50,000 annually or more.
Hayden, 50, figures he might take out a home equity loan to finance college, and his sons might have to use student loans.
Nearly three-quarters of families polled by Fidelity thought college was becoming cost-prohibitive.
Megan Fichter, an Ellicott City mother of three, agreed.
"I don't understand how you could possibly save enough without starting when they are young," said Fichter, 39, a stay-at-home parent.
Thanks to an inheritance, she and her husband prepaid tuition for their 7-year-old son using the Maryland Prepaid College Trust plan. They set aside $200 each month in the state's other savings vehicle, the College Investment Plan managed by T. Rowe Price, for their 5-year-old daughter.
The parents, who also are trying to save for retirement, haven't begun salting away for college for the youngest, now 2.
Fichter said she and her husband expect their children to help out with college expenses, such as contributing to room and board.
"They have to have some skin in the game, otherwise it's not important enough," she said.
Fidelity found that 76 percent of parents surveyed shared that philosophy. Forty-three percent plan to ask children to contribute part of their earnings for college, while 54 percent might have their children work part time while taking classes.
Hayden, for instance, said he expects his sons will work while on campus to earn spending money, something he did in college.
Parents are looking for ways to trim the tuition tab too, Fidelity said.
Half of those surveyed said they might have a child live at home and commute to campus, and 54 percent want their children to take online courses that are cheaper, Fidelity said. Forty percent will encourage children to attend lower-cost public colleges, while nearly one-quarter will urge students to graduate in less time.
Scott of Sparrows Point said she plans for her daughter to attend a less expensive community college for two years while taking general education requirements, and then switch to a four-year institution once she knows her career goals.
"Ideally, we would love for her to commute from home, if she would want," Scott added.
Fidelity's Bernhardt said 59 percent of parents have had conversations with children in grade 10 and higher about the total cost of college, what it means to take on loans and the impact of debt after graduation.
"We think that number is low," he said.
He recommended that parents start having robust financial discussions about college with their children once they're in middle school. And five years before college, parents and children can start looking at financial aid options and use online calculators to figure out what type of assistance they might receive, he said.
Hayden said he has told his eldest son, "I need you to be aware that your mother and I will be investing a lot of money in you to go to college. We value that."
He also told his son that the parents needed him to be engaged in the process and help find a school that is "challenging and good, but also affordable."
Despite the high cost of schooling, Hayden and other parents said they are determined for their children to get a college education.
"Knowing the economy, they have to be prepared," Hayden said.
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