In any family with college-age children, conversations about college admissions and financing are commonplace.

There appears to be, however, a hole in the conversation bucket: In a recent survey, 58 percent of parents said their family has discussed who will be paying for what, yet 64 percent of students claim they have no idea how much their college education will cost. Plus, two-thirds of the youngsters reported they are somewhat concerned or very concerned about not having enough money to pay for college.

“Kids feel the pressure,” says Julie Ravech, director of
Fidelity Investments Institutional Services, which commissioned the 2004 survey of 477 college-bound teens and 376 parents of college-bound teens.

“Some parents really want their children just to focus on doing well in school,” Ravech adds. Half said they want to pay for all or most of their children’s college education.

“It seems a lot of parents don’t want to burden their children but they are already burdened,” she adds.

Perhaps the pressures are getting worse. In the first five years of an annual Junior Achievement poll on teens and summer jobs, “extra spending money” was the number one reason teens said they worked during the summer. In 2005, the primary motivation for summer employment sported a more down-to-business goal: “save for college.”

“As the ability of parents to fully fund their children’s college education decreases over time, much of the responsibility for financing college will shift to the students themselves,” says Darrell Anthony Luzzo, senior vice president for education at
Junior Achievement.

It’s one big reason experts say college-cost discussions should be a family affair. The student self-help portion of financial aid packages, such as loans and work-study, often is significant. “How much debt am I willing to take on?” is a question teens must ask themselves, but without an open family discussion about college financing, they won’t understand the options and their implications, says Mark Rothbaum, president of the scholarship search site
Lunch-Money.com. “This is a time in their life when they’re starting to take on more responsibility for their own finances, their own future.”

Family discussions about college financing can help young people feel empowered about having a plan and assured that college is within reach, as opposed to having “dashed expectations and dashed hopes” that affording college is an impossibility, says Joe Paul Case, director of financial aid at Amherst College.

It’s rarely too early to talk
While age-appropriateness is certainly a factor, discussions about financing college can begin earlier than one might think. “It is never too early for parents to talk with their children about the family’s financial realities and the need for children to contribute to their college education,” says Luzzo. “Even kids as young as 4 or 5 have the capacity to understand the concept of savings.” In fact, children can really become excited about personally contributing to a special college education savings account.

Massachusetts-based investment adviser Harold M. Simansky, who aims to demystify the college-planning process through his seminars and workbook, ”
College Costs How Much?!”, says that even if saving for college isn’t discussed specifically with young children, the idea of saving for the long-term should be.

Having kids split their allowance and gift money into various jars, such as $1 for spending now, $1 to save for short-term expenses such as birthday presents, $1 for long-term savings such as a car or college, and perhaps $1 for charity, is a common way for parents to help children develop the skill of saving, says Simansky.

Just don’t make a college savings discussion a scary one by, say, telling your child it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time they are in college, Ravech says. “Then kids are like, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to do my homework tonight!'”

A better message for older elementary and middle school kids, Case suggests, is that, despite the family situation, college really is a possibility.

Teen talk
By the time their teen heads off to high school, ideally the college savings discussions have been progressing and can evolve into specifics.

Families can research the costs of various schools, from the $16,000 per year they might pay for an in-state public school to the $28,000 for an out-of-state public school, and, finally, the $45,000 price tag of a prestigious private university, Simansky says.

Estimating the family’s total contribution based on savings so far can help the teen understand the amount of self-help that would be needed to attend certain institutions, Rothbaum adds.

Don’t forget that the full price tag of attending school goes well beyond the billed tuition and fees. In Luzzo’s experience, high schoolers tend to be both interested in and surprised to find out what types of day-to-day costs can be expected when living away from home. Phone bills, all-nighter food cravings, and even coin-operated laundry machines all add up fast.

While conversations about this aspect of the college planning process can come up at any time, Simansky sees family visits to college campuses — with their unique opportunity for an extended discussion — as the ideal time. “You can’t just visit them in a vacuum. The child should be told, ‘We’re going to visit X College at $Y per year. Down the street, the school is this much a year,'” he advises.

Get ready to talk
As with any type of parent-child discussion, doing some homework first can help facilitate a good college chat. For instance, if a local community college might be in the picture, find out how much it costs, what the advantages are of spending two years there and then transferring, and what agreements four-year institutions in the area have for accepting credits from that school, Case says.

Parent-focused Web sites such as
College Parents of America can help with the research. And don’t hesitate to ask a financial adviser for help with family discussions about college costs. “A lot of them out there are more to their clients than just the investment guy. They do play a role that is much larger than dollars going into a stock fund or bond fund,” Ravech says.

The best help in remaining positive about college being within reach may be getting the scoop on colleges such as Amherst, which has a policy of meeting demonstrated financial need, Case says. “Institutions, private and public, are increasingly stepping up to the plate and providing increased institutional aid,” he explains.

Resist the fear factor when seeing the price tag of a particular college of interest, Rothbaum adds. Teens can be told to apply to schools they want to attend. The financial aid process may take care of the rest.

Young people who will need to help finance their education can also be reminded of the other benefits of working prior to and during college. Research has shown that those “who work part time tend to be more organized and motivated to achieve academic success,” Luzzo notes. The opportunity to build a resume and learn how to work with others are additional plusses, he adds. “Working during college can be an excellent way to link education and academics to the ‘real world.'”

Melissa Ezarik is a freelance writer in Connecticut

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