When my wife and I moved to Greater Des Moines 11 summers ago, our two daughters had just finished first and second grade and were still getting quarters from the tooth fairy. 

Now, in what seems like just a few months rather than years gone by, we’re getting ready to send our graduating senior off to the University of Northern Iowa this fall, and our younger daughter hopes to visit some colleges this summer.   

After seeing so many statistics about the high levels of student debt, we’re naturally pretty anxious as the reality of paying for college really sinks in. It’s something we’ve been thinking about during the past year as we prepared for that all-important first step - filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – which we did in early January. 

Along the way, I think the biggest lessons we’ve learned are to read and listen to as much information as we can to become informed, and to ask questions. Another important lesson has been to tackle this big task one step and one day at a time, much as we’re approaching that other big goal ahead of us – paying for retirement. 

Looking back to our own college experiences, my wife and I were both able to get through four years of college with no debt during the ‘80s.  The numbers are a lot bigger and scarier than they were 30 years ago. 

In the early ‘80s when I was in college, the average student took out $1,720 in federal loans per year; now the average is $6,370 per year in federal loans, according to a study last fall by the College Board. On the free money side, though, grants awarded have also increased significantly.  Last academic year, the average college student received $7,270 in grant aid, compared with $2,130 in 1982-83 (all measured in 2012 dollars). 

Though our oldest daughter is receiving two grants and two scholarships for her freshman year – which we’re very grateful for – about three-fourths of her first-year tuition and room and board will be still have to be paid through a combination of federal loans, work-study, and monthly installment payments to UNI from her parents. 

College Savings Iowa has been a great tool for us – the amounts we’ve put away for each girl will pay for textbooks and some fees and give a little boost to the monthly payment we can make. I started a 529 account for both girls after interviewing state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald for a Business Record story about the program in 2004. But I have to admit that I’m among the many folks who have to say, “wish we had started sooner” and “wish we could have contributed more.” 

It’s clear our family’s college funding strategy will require whittling away at college costs from a number of sources so our daughters can borrow as little as possible.  It’s not an easy task, but so far, we feel encouraged. 

We’ll just keep taking this one day at a time.  (I don’t suppose there’s a “college fairy” who replaces a high school diploma left under the pillow with a stack of Benjamins, is there?) 

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Joe Gardyasz
Senior Staff Writer, Business Record