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How to send your kid to college without taking on debt

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(Read caption) People are led on a tour on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Today, the average cost of attending a public university, including room and board, is about $25,000 a year. For a child born in 2015, the cost will be double that amount if recent education inflation (currently about 5 percent annually) continues.

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Raising a child is expensive. Just ask anyone who’s had a baby. Parents can expect to spend thousands of dollars — whether it’s for painting the nursery or buying diapers and clothes — before their child is even a year old.

Parenthood only gets more expensive as your child grows older. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost to raise a child today is about $234,000 over 18 years. That works out to $13,000 per year — a figure that pales in comparison to what you’ll likely spend annually to send your child to college.

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Higher education at a high cost

Today, the average cost of attending a public university, including room and board, is about $25,000 a year. For a child born in 2015, the cost will be double that amount if recent education inflation (currently about 5% annually) continues. That translates to about $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree. Ouch!

Sure, your child can apply for scholarships, and parents can tackle the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to seek financial aid. But barring a full ride, you or your offspring will need to cover the remainder of the costs by paying out of pocket or with personal loans. These high-interest-rate student loans are one of the key reasons so many young graduates are saddled with mountains of debt.

Tips to help avoid college debt

What can parents do to prepare for and manage these staggering education costs?

Here are a few options:

  • As soon as your child is born, start a 529 college saving plan. This is a state-sponsored savings plan, and the growth of the account is tax-free if it’s used for higher education. You’ll probably have to contribute $500 each month to fund most of your child’s education expenses. If you can’t afford that, start with half that amount. Also, encourage grandparents, aunts and uncles to contribute to this plan.
  • Set up a UPromise credit card account. You will earn 1% to 2% cash back on eligible purchases, and this money can be directly transferred into your 529 plan.
  • Pay off your mortgage early. If you pay your mortgage off in 15 years instead of 30, you can then apply the amount you save to college tuition.
  • Have your child attend a local “commuter” college. Having your college student live at home can add up to big savings. The downside, of course, is that your child might miss out on the more traditional college experience.
  • Have your child start off at a junior or community college. For the first two years of college, you could send your child to a junior or community college. If your child excels and later transfers to another university, the degree will state where your child graduated from, not where he or she initially enrolled. This is a popular option in California.

With the final two options, be prepared to fend off the social pressure of not “sending your kid away to college” — and remember that few 18-year-olds can fully comprehend the magnitude of being $100,000 or more in debt.

The bottom line

If you’re just starting a family, planning now for your child’s education can save you six figures by the time your child is ready to go to college. With that kind of savings, your child can pursue his or her passion rather than opting for a “safer” career merely for the sake of paying off college debt.

Learn more about Jeff on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor.

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This article first appeared in NerdWallet.