Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Dear Carrie, I'm the father of three teenage daughters. I've been saving for college since they were babies, so I'm shocked to find myself $100,000 short. How can I cover this gap? The oldest is 16. --A Reader


Dear Reader, First, I want to congratulate you for making saving for your daughters' educations a priority. It's no easy task to keep that as a primary goal in the face of all the other costs of raising children. A national Sallie Mae study, "How America Pays for College 2012," found that the typical family covered just 28 percent of their kids' college costs through savings and income in 2011-12. So give yourself a little credit.

But it's no wonder that parents are struggling. According to the College Board, average total charges for in-state students at four-year public colleges and universities in 2011-12 were close to $18,000 a year. Total costs for out-of-state students were over $30,000 per year. Yearly total costs at private nonprofit four-year institutions were close to $40,000. And these are just the averages!

Multiply these average annual costs by four years and then by three children and you have a tremendous challenge. Fortunately, with some research and planning -- and a little help from your daughters themselves -- there are ways to meet it head-on.


(SET BOLD) Research -- and apply for -- all financial aid (END BOLD)

A lot of parents make the mistake of thinking their kids won't qualify for financial aid -- and make the even bigger mistake of not applying for it. But whether it's through private scholarships or government grants and loans, there's a considerable amount of financial help out there -- and not all of it is asset based.

Again, according to the College Board, in 2011-12, full-time undergraduate students received an average of $13,218 per student in financial aid from a combination of federal loans and other sources. That's pretty encouraging.

Equally encouraging is the fact that the Department of Education has made the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process more streamlined and easier to navigate. Consider, too, that in FAFSA calculations, only 5.64 percent of parents' assets are considered available for college expenses. There's also an asset protection allowance (which increases as the parents age), so a certain percentage of assets won't be counted. Retirement accounts and the value of your primary residence are also excluded.

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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