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SENATOR DAVID LONGIt's no secret college tuition costs are rising at unsustainable rates. As parents who have sent two children off to college, my wife and I understand the anxiety many parents experience when thinking about paying for their children's education. Though serious steps have been taken at the state level by universities to reverse this trend, planning for college costs remains absolutely vital for Hoosier families.

That's why several states, including Indiana, have dedicated September as College Savings Month. As part of this effort, I've highlighted several resources available to help students and parents navigate college financial planning. I encourage all Indiana families to set aside time this month to plan for their children's academic futures.

For families with young students:

•Begin budgeting for college now with the help of free online resources at FinAid.org. FinAid offers a range of "calculators" to help you determine how much school will cost, how much you will need to save and how much aid you will receive.

•Start contributing to a CollegeChoice 529 Savings Plan. Indiana's CollegeChoice program allows families to receive tax advantages for contributing to a college savings fund. Taxpayers are eligible for a state income tax credit of 20 percent of contributions to their CollegeChoice account, up to $1,000 credit per year. In honor of College Savings Month, CollegeChoice is awarding two Hoosier families with $2,500 for a start-up account. Apply at collegechoicedirect.com/giveaway by Sept. 30.

•Enroll in programs such as UPromise, where you and your family members can earn cash back for college by shopping at participating stores and restaurants. Visit upromise.com for more information.

For families with high school students:

•Research cost comparisons of schools your student is interested in attending. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) offers an online tool to compare the net price your student would pay at Indiana's public colleges after you factor in your expected financial aid. The calculator is available at indianacollegecosts.org.

•Fill out a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible. The deadline to file is March 10 for the 2013-2014 academic school year. Visit www.fafsa.ed.gov to get started.

•Investigate the dual-credit and Advanced Placement options your student's high school offers to help Hoosier youth enter college with a certain amount of credits already completed.

•Encourage your student to apply for available scholarships, such as the ICHE's Early Graduation Scholarship that awards $4,000 to students who graduate high school in three years. To apply visit http://www.in.gov/ssaci/2504.htm.

•Other local scholarships can be found at http://www.indianacollegecosts.org/learn-where-the-money-is/local-scholarships

For current college students:

•Understand your financial aid. There are many types of aid, including PLUS, Perkins, Stafford, and many other loan options, all of which will provide different types of monetary assistance in paying for college. Learn more at http://www.finaid.org.

•Check for scholarships your college or academic department might offer to current students. Here's a website that can do a search of scholarships you might be eligible for by simply answering a few quick questions about yourself: http://www.scholarships.com/scholarship-search.aspx.

•Live within your means. Create and stick to a budget that accounts for all of your expenses (tuition, rent, food, clothing, car payments and utilities). Make sure you are meeting all financial obligations, including rent and car payments, before you spend money on non-essential items, like going out to dinner or purchasing a new iPhone.

•Avoid accumulating unnecessary consumer debt. Don't apply for credit cards and quickly max them out on those non-essential items. Remember, debt can easily become overwhelming and follow you for years. Instead, college financial advisors recommend students have one credit card that can be used ONLY for emergencies.

•Save. Save. Save. Every little bit helps, so begin saving NOW for your future by putting away as little as $20 of your paycheck into a savings account regularly. This will begin to accumulate over time and give you a "safety net" should you ever run into a problem.

Planning for college and managing finances while saving for the future can be overwhelming for both parents and students. But the sooner students are able to establish themselves as responsible young adults, the closer they will be to laying the foundation for a financially secure future.


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