Like most parents, we want our kids to have the best possible shot at a college education that lets them pursue their passion. However, as I investigated college saving plans, I realized that the soaring costs of a college education mean almost half of college graduates have student debt. It seems as though this generation of children doesn’t have the same shot at the American dream because they graduate with huge loan payments. Still, as parents we are committed to helping them get through college without a ton of debt.

Don’t fall into a parenting competition

You see the announcements all over social media. Parents proudly announce that their child plans to attend an exclusive private school. We accept that kids in high school compete against one another for a spot at a few universities. They spend long hours practicing a musical instrument, pursue sports, log volunteer hours, take on leadership positions in clubs, and strive for high standardized test scores. Their full-time job from the time they enter high school is to get into an elite college.

Don’t fall for the trap that kids are only successful if they attend a brand-name college. Studies show that students who attended community college have the highest graduation rates of college attendees. Many communities have high-quality, comparable education opportunities available in the form of dual enrollment. Consider enrolling at a reputable community college for the core classes required at all universities and save the investment to transfer into a program for the final two years to complete a major.

Pursue scholarships and work study

The average student loan debt for graduating college students in 2016 was $37,102 – a 78% increase from just ten years earlier. It can take 20-25 years to repay student loans, so they can be in their 40s by the time they pay off their loans and save a 20% down payment on a house. In turn, massive amounts of debt are pushing the average retirement age from 66 in 2018 to a projected 72 years old.

Millions of dollars in grants and scholarships go unclaimed each year. Estimates are that  $2.3 billion in Pell Grants were left unclaimed in 2017. Filling out the FAFSA in October each year is a requirement for Pell Grants which provide a maximum of $5,920.

Take advantage of tax benefits on your savings

Only 40% of families have a plan for funding college. Waiting until your child is enrolled and paying the costs directly gives you less money for college. It’s past time for us to start planning for their college educations, but it’s a challenge because our family only has one main source of income. With college only eight years away, we can’t afford to wait until we both have steady incomes again to start saving.

Saving money in an investment account, like a 529 college savings plan or Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) allows you to earn interest on the money you invest. But it also means that you won’t be taxed on the earnings. These plans give you more money for college just by putting it away. Any amount you can set aside will benefit from tax savings, meaning you can reduce the need for potential college loans. Even if we can’t provide all the money necessary for college, we want to contribute as much as we can so our kids don’t leave school with a mountain of debt. Studies show that students borrow 1/3 less money if the family has established some sort of financial plan for college.

Conclusion

We all want our children to have a more successful life than the generation before. But the focus on expensive college educations with tens of thousands in student loans is robbing people of the American dream. To give our kids the best shot, we’re pursuing several strategies to reduce potential college debt.