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Dos and Donts: Student loans

Parents should begin saving money early for their children's college education because of the high costs and expectations that parents will pay part of the costs associated with the education. Several stock mutual funds are recommended.

Here's a question that's as pleasant to consider as a fraternity hazing: How will you come up with the money to send your child to the campus of his or her choice? If you're like most Americans, your answer is probably loans--unless you start saving and investing more effectively. According to a recent MONEY poll, fully 87% of U.S. moms and dads expect their kids to go to college. But nearly half of them, 47%, have not yet stashed away any money to cover the costs, which currently run an average of $7,118 a year for tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public schools and $18,184 at private universities, according to the College Board. And at the current growth rate of 5% a year, the cost of a four-year degree is projected to rise to $73,834 (public) and $188,620 (private) for a child born in 1997.

The survey of 1,118 adults with children, conducted by ICR of Media, Pa. (margin of error: plus or minus 2.9 percentage points), also provides a wake-up call for parents who say they are saving for their kids' college costs. More than half stash their savings in unwise college investments, such as certificates of deposit. And nearly a quarter of parents who are saving are putting away a paltry $500 or less a year for each child.

Yes, your child can lessen your burden by working part time and by pursuing scholarships (see "Strategies That Can Cut Costs 30% or More" on page 126). But financial experts say that the average parent should be prepared to pick up at least a third of total college costs.

If your child is in high school and you haven't saved enough, check out our advice on page 138 on borrowing for college. If your children are younger, however, the sooner you start to save, the better. For example, Richard and Deborah Winters of Milford, Conn. (pictured at left) began putting away col- lege money for son Kyle, 4, when he was six months old and for daughter Kar- lie, 2, when she was 1 1/2. Oakland registered nurse Iris Winn (pictured on page 139), a late starter, now stashes a whopping $12,000 of her $70,000 annual salary into college savings for her daughter Monique, 15.

But whenever you start your savings regimen, you can maximize your dollars by planning and investing wisely. Later in this article, we suggest investment strategies for families with college-bound children. But before you get to the specific advice, study these basic rules--the dos and don'ts of smart invest- ing for college:

--Do set family goals. You must first figure out how much you need to carve out of today's spending for tomorrow's college costs. To do this, you can use the savings calculators included in popular software such as Quicken, online services like MONEY's college savings calculator (http://www.pathfinder .com/cgi-bin/Money/collsave.cgi) or free worksheets offered by brokerages and mutual fund companies, including Charles Schwab (800-435-4000) and Fidelity (800-544-8888).

"Parents and children should work together to make sure they are focused on the same goal," says James Pearman of Fee-Only Financial Planning in Roanoke. "That way, you can face tough questions early on--for example, what to do if you are planning to pay for 75% of tuition at an in-state public school and your child wants to go to Harvard."

--Do start saving early. Every year, as your investment principal grows, so do the earnings on your money. The lesson is simple: Don't put off investing.

--Do invest in stock mutual funds. According to the MONEY poll, parents saving for college have plowed 53% of their education investments into low-risk--but low-interest--CDs and savings accounts at banks and money-market mutual funds. The parents have invested only 23% of their money in stocks and stock funds. That's a serious mistake. While stocks carry some risk, they are your best bet for making your money grow over five years or more. Since 1926, stocks have gained an average of about 11% a year, more than any other type of investment. Moreover, you can't count on bank account and CD yields to keep pace with tuition hikes.

The safest, easiest and most disciplined way to invest in equities is through mutual funds. Not only do funds offer diversification but many will also waive initial investment minimums if you make automatic deposits every month, typically as little as $50 or $100. To avoid having any money siphoned off in commissions, stick with no-load funds like the ones we name in this article.

--Don't neglect saving for retirement. Planning for your child's education should not sidetrack you from making regular contributions to your own 401(k), IRA or similar tax-deferred retirement account. You simply don't want to miss the chance to make the most of the tax-deferred gains available in such accounts. And retirement assets won't affect your eligibility for federal need-based college financial aid.

--Don't invest in esoterica. From time to time, you may encounter sales pitches encouraging you to save for college with investments such as annuities or cash-value life insurance. Both defer taxes on your investment earnings but at the price of costly withdrawal rules. Many deferred annuities, for example, charge penalties of 7% or more if you need to take out money within seven years of making your investment. Tempted to buy zero-coupon Treasury bonds, which recently yielded 6.6%? They can be fine investments--as long as you buy ones that will be redeemed when you need the money. If you have to sell a zero before maturity, you may lose principal if interest rates have risen since you bought it. Prepaid-tuition plans, another way of building up college savings, can make sense if you're too nervous to invest in stocks (see the box opposite).

--Don't put your money in your child's name if you hope to get financial aid. College financial aid formulas generally require a child to contribute 35% of his or her assets toward costs, but parents typically need to put up no more than 5.6% of their savings.

With those basic dos and don'ts at the heart of your investment strategy, here are moves to make, based on your kid's age:

If your child is 13 or younger, you have enough time to weather any short-term stock market squalls. Investment strategists therefore recommend that you put 75% to 100% of your college savings in stock funds, depending on how much risk you can tolerate, and the rest in such fixed-income investments as bonds and bond mutual funds. You might start your savings program with a fund that holds shares of large and mid-size companies with consistent earnings gains and strong growth potential. Financial planner Michael Zabalaoui at Resource Management in Metairie, La. suggests Oakmark (up an average of 25.13% annually for the three years that ended June 30; 800-625-6275). Pearman recommends Vanguard Index Value (up 25.46%; 800-851-4999). Both funds seek out undervalued equities and bear below-average risk, according to fund ranker Morningstar.

After you have accumulated $5,000 in your starter portfolio, you can move as much as a third of your holdings into small-company and international stock funds, which offer the prospect of juicier returns but also carry greater risk. For funds specializing in shares of small companies, Zabalaoui favors Berger Small Cap Value (up 22.6%; 800-333-1001). Among international funds, he likes Janus Worldwide (up 24.7%; 800-525-8983).

If your child is 14 or older, reduce risk to safeguard savings. Zabalaoui recommends getting at least 50% of your money out of stocks by the end of your child's freshman year and moving all of your college savings for that child into short-term bonds, fixed income and cash by the end of her sophomore year. To keep risk low, most investment experts prescribe short- and inter- mediate-term bond funds, which will add more pop to your total return than CDs or U.S. Savings Bonds. Pearman likes Vanguard Bond Index Intermediate-Term (up 8.62%; 800-851-4999). The fund shuns high-risk bonds and has an extremely low annual expense ratio of about 0.2% of principal, enabling more savings to go toward your child's college costs.

Marc Sylvester is expect based in Edison, NJ. He holds expertise in the banking and finance sector and is a conultant to leading business houses.

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