Step 1

A two- or four-year college degree is becoming more and more important for unlocking the doors to economic and educational opportunity in America today. Getting a college education requires a lot of time, effort and careful planning by parents and students, but it provides knowledge and skills students will use for the rest of their lives to help them succeed in whatever they undertake. By going to college students:

  • Get (and keep) a better job. Because the world is changing rapidly, and many jobs rely on new technology, more and more jobs require education beyond high school. With a two- or four-year college education, your child will have more jobs from which to choose.
  • Earn more money. On average a person who goes to college earns more than a person who does not. Someone with a two-year associate degree earns more than a high school graduate. In 1998, a man with a bachelor?s degree or higher earned almost 98 percent more than a man with only a high school diploma, and a woman with a bachelor?s degree or higher earned almost 84 percent more than a woman with only a high school diploma.
  • Get a good start in life. A college education helps your child acquire a wide range of knowledge in many subjects, as well as advanced knowledge in the specific subjects they are most interested in. College also trains students to express thoughts clearly in speech and in writing, to make informed decisions and to use technology?useful skills on and off the job.

Students who are not interested in going to a four-year college or university for a bachelor's degree can benefit from the skills and knowledge that two years of college provide to compete in today's job market. These students may want to pursue a technical program in a community, junior or technical college, which provides the skills and experience employers look for. Many high schools and some local employers offer career-focused programs called tech-prep, 2+2, school-to-work or school-to-career, which are linked to community and technical colleges. These programs coordinate high school course work with course work at local colleges, and in some cases give students the chance to learn in a real work setting. This way, the high school material better prepares students for college-level work, and also starts the student on a clear path toward a college degree.

Students interested in technical programs will probably want to take some occupational or technical courses in high school, but they also need to take the "core" courses in English, math, science, history and geography that are outlined in step 2.

What Kinds of Jobs Can You Get with a College Education?

One of the major benefits of acquiring a college education is having more jobs to choose from. Parents and students should talk about the kind of work that interests the student, and find out more about the kind of education that specific jobs require. For instance, some jobs require graduate degrees beyond the traditional four-year degree, such as a medical degree or a law degree. As students mature and learn about different opportunities, they may change their mind several times about the type of job they want to have. Changing your mind is nothing to worry about?but not planning ahead is. For more information on the educational requirements of specific jobs, contact a guidance counselor or check the Occupational Outlook Handbook in your library.

Examples of Jobs Requiring College Preparation

Two-Year College (Associate Degree) Four-Year College (Bachelor's Degree) More Than Four Years (Various Graduate Degrees)
Computer Technician Surveyor Registered Nurse Dental Hygienist Medical Laboratory Technician Commercial Artist Hotel/Restaurant Manager Engineering Technician Automotive Mechanic Administrative Assistant Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator Heating, Air-Conditioning, and Refrigeration Technician Teacher Accountant FBI Agent Engineer Journalist Insurance Agent Pharmacist Computer Systems Analyst Dietitian Writer Investment Banker Graphic Designer Social Worker Public Relations Specialist Lawyer Doctor Architect Scientist University Professor Economist Psychologist Priest or Rabbi Dentist Veterinarian Public Policy Analyst Geologist Zoologist Management Consultant

Source: Compiled by the Planning and Evaluation Service of the U.S. Department of Education from various sources.

By the time a child is in sixth grade, families should start talking about going to college. Make it clear that you expect your children to go to college, and together start planning how to get there. Everyone knows that high school courses and grades count for admission to college, but many people don't realize that a college education also builds on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier years. Your child should plan a high school course schedule early, in the sixth or seventh grade.

Challenging courses help kids get into college

Research shows that students who take algebra and geometry early (by the end of the eighth and ninth grades) are much more likely to go on to college than students who do not. In a national sample, only 26 percent of low-income students who did not take geometry went to college; but 71 percent of low-income students who took geometry went to college. It is common in other developed countries for students to have mastered the basics of math, algebra and some geometry by the end of the eighth grade. By taking algebra early in middle and junior high school, students can enroll in chemistry, physics and trigonometry. In addition, students should take three to four years of a foreign language and as many Advanced Placement courses as they can before finishing high school.

Just as employers want workers who have certain skills, most colleges want students who have taken certain courses. Many of these courses can be taken only after a student has passed other, more basic courses. The most important thing a student can do to prepare for college is to sign up for the right courses and work hard to pass them. As parents, you should get involved in choosing your children's schedule for the next year, and make sure that your children can and do take challenging courses. College-bound middle and junior high school students should take:

  • Algebra I (in eighth grade) and Geometry (in ninth grade) or other challenging math courses that expect students to master the essentials of these subjects. Algebra and geometry form the foundation for the advanced math and science courses that students need to take in high school to prepare for college. These courses give students the skills they need to succeed on college entrance exams, in college math classes and in their future careers.
  • English, Science and History or Geography. Together with math, these courses make up the core or basic academic classes. Every student should take English every year in middle school and in high school. They should also take as many science and history (including geography) classes as possible because all of them are good preparation for college. See the chart on the next page for examples of recommended courses.
  • Foreign Language. Many colleges require their students to study a foreign language for at least two years, and some prefer three or four years of one language. Taking a foreign language shows colleges that a student is serious and willing to learn the basics plus more, and shows employers that he or she is prepared to compete in the global economy.
  • Computer Science. Basic computer skills are now essential, and more and more jobs require at least a basic knowledge of computers. Make sure your child takes advantage of any opportunities the school offers to learn to use computers.
  • The Arts. Many colleges view participation in the arts and music as a valuable experi-ence that broadens students' understanding and appreciation of the world around them. It is also well known and widely recognized that the arts contribute significantly to children's intellectual development.

There's no substitute for taking challenging courses and working hard. The following chart lists some of the courses students should take.

High School Courses Recommended for College

English 4 years Mathematics 4 years
  composition   American literature   English literature   world literature   algebra I   geometry   algebra II   trigonometry   precalculus   calculus
History and Geography 2 to 3 years Laboratory Science 3 to 4 years
  geography   U.S. history   U.S. government   world history   world cultures   civics   biology   earth science   chemistry   physics
Visual and Performing Arts 1 to 2 years Challenging Electives 1 to 3 years
  art   dance   drama   music   economics   psychology   computer science   statistics   communications
Foreign Language 3 to 4 years  

Note: Taking Advanced Placement courses and Tech-Prep courses in any of these subjects can give students added skills for college.

Source: Compiled by the Planning and Evaluation Service of the U.S. Department of Education from various sources.

Step 2: Getting Ready

Taking the Right Courses for College Starts in Middle School

Get a Leg Up on College Preparation and Save on Tuition High school students can also take courses for credit at many colleges. These courses, Advanced Placement and Tech-Prep, are available in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Middle school and junior high school students who plan ahead and take algebra, a foreign language and computer courses by the eighth grade are better prepared for Advanced Placement and Tech-Prep courses in high school.

  • Taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Advanced Placement courses are college-level courses in 16 different subjects, from arts and music to calculus and English, that help students get ready for college during high school. Students who score high enough on the AP exams can receive advanced placement in college or college credit. This saves time and money, as students may be able to take fewer classes in college. Your child's teachers, guidance counselor or principal can tell you if your local high school offers AP courses. If they are not offered, work with other parents to get them included as part of the core curriculum.
  • Taking Tech-Prep courses. Students who want to pursue a technical program at a community, technical or junior college may want to prepare by taking some technical courses in high school in addition to the core courses. Talk to someone at your child's school or from a community, junior or technical college to find out the best high school courses to take for tech prep involvement. "School-to-work" and "school-to-career" courses can also help connect students to colleges and the workplace. Work with your school counselor to find local businesses or school-to-work councils that can provide your child with these opportunities.
  • Getting ready for college admissions exams. Most colleges require students to take either the SAT I or the ACT in their junior or senior year of high school. Ask your guidance counselor how your child can best prepare for these exams.

Don't go it alone: help for parents Some parents especially those who did not go to or finish college themselves may worry that they cannot provide their child the guidance and support needed to get ready for college. But remember, getting ready for college is more work than anyone can handle on their own, and you don't need to have gone to college yourself to help someone else get ready for college. To provide children extra opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills they need for college, many schools offer before- and after-school programs, where children can learn more about the subjects that interest them, under the care and guidance of adults. Some schools also have mentoring programs, where an adult who has studied or worked in the same field in which a child is interested can provide extra help and advice about, for example, the challenging math and science courses college-bound students need to take, and how to plan for a college and a career connected to their interests. Ask your child's teachers or guidance counselor for infor-mation about such programs in your local schools. Ask your child's principal about opportunities for teachers or others who have graduated from college to come into the classroom to talk with students about their experiences and success.

Step 3: Getting Ready for College Early

Most people believe that college is much more expensive than it really is. Although some colleges are expensive, many colleges are within reach. Even if a student wants to go to a more expensive school, financial aid (money available from state governments, colleges and the U.S. Department of Education) can help those students who have planned ahead and worked hard in school pay for college. The basic costs of college are tuition, which is the amount of money that colleges charge for instruction and attendance; fees, which cover other costs, like athletic activities and special events; and other expenses, including room and board (the cost of housing and food), books, supplies and transportation. While costs vary dramatically, tuition can be as low as a few hundred dollars per year for part-time students receiving financial aid.

How much a college costs usually depends on whether it is a public or private school. The majority of students attend state or public colleges, which receive a portion of their budgets from state or local governments and can charge lower tuition to students who live in that state. Students from other states pay higher tuition. Private institutions tend to be more expensive than public colleges and charge the same tuition for in-state and out-of-state students.

By the time your child attends college, tuition, fees, room and board, and other expenses will be higher than the amounts listed here?but remember: as college costs increase, the amount of money you earn, and thus the amount you will have available to pay for college, may also rise. No one can be sure how much costs will change over time?so be cautious when people tell you a particular amount. To get an idea of how much expenses are now for major colleges and univer-sities in the United States, visit on the World Wide Web, or look at the college guidebooks in your local library or bookstore.

For information on the costs of college and paying for college, enrollment and types of programs that are offered in colleges, visit COOL, the National Center for Education Statistics College Opportunities On-line site on the Internet at The COOL Web site is designed to help students and their parents understand the different types of colleges and the costs of attending college. Information about individual colleges is also available on the COOL site.

Step 4: Paying for College: The Aid is Available, But Save, Too

Families are not alone in paying the costs of college: every year millions of students apply for and receive financial aid and almost half of all students who go to college receive some kind of financial aid. Because college represents an investment in our most precious resource, our children, no child who wants to go to college and is willing to work hard should be prevented by financial need. Here's what to do: 

  • Start saving early. Saving money is the best way to prepare for meeting the costs of college. Set aside money each month, starting now, to build a college fund. Think about where your child might attend college, how much that type of college might cost, and how much you can afford to save. The earlier you and your child begin saving, the smaller the amount you will have to set aside each month.
  • Apply for financial aid. All needy students can apply for federal, state and other student financial aid to help them pay for college. The two major types of aid are grants or scholarships, which do not have to be repaid, and loans, which are available to students and parents and, like a car loan or a mortgage, must eventually be repaid.

Where Can You Apply for Financial Aid?

The federal government supplies $46 billion annually in student aid, about 75 percent of all student aid.

  • Pell Grants are the most important form of student financial aid for the nation?s neediest students. In 1999-2000, almost 4 million needy students received Pell grants. The size of the grant depends on the student?s need. In 2000-2001, the maximum grant will be $3,300.
  • The Work-Study Program lets students work during the summer or part-time during the school year to help pay for college. Colleges help find jobs for students, and the federal government helps pay the salary. Work-Study jobs give students valuable work experience and are often related to the student's classes or future career in addition to helping pay the costs of college. The new additions to the Work-Study program, the America Reads Challenge and America Counts, let students work as reading and math tutors for young children helping students give back to the community and pay for college.
  • Federal Loans are available to both students and parents. Stafford Loans for students are either subsidized, for needy students, where some of the accumulated interest is paid by the government, or unsubsidized, where the student pays all of the accumulated interest. PLUS Loans are loans to parents for any costs that are not paid for by other aid.

A quick word about student loans

Students usually do not have to start repaying their loans until after they finish school, and the interest rate is usually lower than for other kinds of loans. Many students are hesitant to take out loans, but remember: college graduates usually make a good deal more money than people who do not have a college education, so paying a loan after graduation will be easier than it might seem. Nevertheless, it is important that both students and parents understand the terms of the loan before agreeing to them and know when repayment will begin and how much their payments will be. There are many different education loans, so before taking out any loan, be sure to find out what the exact conditions of the loan are.

Other Forms of Aid Include:

  • Federal aid administered by colleges including Perkins Loans and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOGs)?the U.S. Department of Education gives aid to colleges, who decide which of their students need it most.
  • HOPE Scholarships, Lifetime Learning tax credits, and other tax benefits for higher education?The HOPE Scholarship tax credit provides a maximum of $1,500 (100 percent of the first $1,000 of tuition and required fees, and a 50 percent credit on the second $1,000) for each of the first two years of college. The Lifetime Learning tax credit provides a maximum $1,000 tax credit to help college juniors and seniors and graduate and professional degree students, as well as adults who want to go back to school. For detailed information on who is eligible for these and other tax benefits, it?s best to refer to your Internal Revenue Service (IRS) forms and publications which are available at
  • Many states and colleges offer financial assistance directly to individual students based on need or merit. Merit-based aid, usually scholarships or grants, is given to students who meet requirements not related to financial needs like doing well in high school or displaying artistic or athletic talent. A notable example of state aid is the Georgia HOPE Scholarship, which guarantees students free college as long as they have earned a B average and stayed off of drugs. Call or write your state's higher education agency or college financial aid offices to request information about these opportunities.
  • Other Assistance. Organizations, foundations and other groups offer scholarships to academically promising students, minorities, women and disabled students. To learn more about these scholarships, speak with your school guidance counselor or go to the reference section of the public library.
  • Serve Your Country. Many opportunities exist for students to pay for all or part of a college education by serving their country during or after their college years. Service in Americorps, the Merchant Marine Academy, the country's domestic Peace Corps or in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) entitles students to scholarships of varying amounts to cover educational expenses. The U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force each has its own military academy (a four-year college and a commission in the military after gradua-tion), where tuition is free, but only the most highly qualified students are admitted. Local armed forces recruiting offices can provide more information. Call 1-800-94-ACORPS for more information about Americorps?a way to serve your community and pay for college.

More Information on Federal Aid

For the most up-to-date information about student aid supplied by the U.S. Department of Education, call the Federal Student Financial Aid Information Center at the U.S. Department of Education toll-free at 1-800-4FED-AID. You can also get a copy of the federal financial aid form, which is required to apply for all federal financial aid, by calling this number. You can also obtain the guide to federal financial aid for students, called The Student Guide, which provides an extensive and annually updated discussion of all federal student aid programs. You can obtain the Guide by writing to the following address:

Federal Student Aid Information Center P.O. Box 84 Washington, DC 20044

To apply for other aid in addition to federal aid, you may need additional forms. High school guidance counselors can tell you more about applying for financial aid, including where to get forms you might need for state aid. College financial aid offices can also be of help to you.

More Information on Other Topics Discussed in This Handbook For the latest Department of Education publications on topics related to college-going, call 1-877-4ED-PUBS toll-free or visit

Information on planning for college early can be found on the Department of Education?s Think College Early Web site, with special sections for students, parents and educators, at

A Final Note

A college education is a major ingredient for success in the world today?and by taking the right courses and working hard your child can be prepared to go to college. Building a strong foundation of high-level classes, starting with algebra I and geometry by the eighth and ninth grades, and continuing to take rigorous courses through high school will better prepare students for college admissions tests and college course work. By saving for college and taking advantage of financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education, colleges and states, you can change college from a dream into a reality for your children if they are willing to take the challenge to do their best in school from the start.

The text of this document is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce this document in whole or in part is granted.

This publication is only available to be printed/downloaded from the Department's Web site at for duplication and distribution.