Manchester Community College

Manchester Community College is open for registration on Tuesday. The cost of four-year colleges has helped fuel the growth of New Hampshire’s community college system.

Parents and students wish they spent more time planning for college costs, according to a survey out Wednesday.

"It's a conversation to have long before they get into high school," Christine Roberts, head of student lending at Citizens Bank, said in an interview Tuesday.

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"Everybody knows that it's coming from the day your child is born," Roberts said. "The fact that so many feel they're not prepared tells me we need to spend more time on how early they have to think about it."

A national survey for Citizens Financial Group showed that 63 percent of parents and 60 percent of students wished they had looked at college finance options earlier.

New Hampshire’s Class of 2017 graduates recorded the fourth-highest average student loan debt in the nation at $34,415, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. Granite State grads have landed in the top slot in past years.

New Hampshire had the highest percentage of students with student debt, at 74 percent.

Getting a college degree is a life changer.

"What's been cited as the industry standard is those with some type of bachelor's degree typically earn a million dollars more over the course of their lifetime," said Tori Berube, vice president of college planning and community engagement for the NHHEAF (New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation) Network in Concord.

The Citizens survey said 30 percent of parents said they first talked to their children about paying for school when they were in eighth grade or earlier, and 53 percent said they discussed college costs before the end of their child's freshman year.

Savings strategies weren't universal: 44 percent of parents had started to save for their kids' college before their child's 11th birthday while 38 percent reported saving no money.

Here's a few tips from those counseling families planning for college:

  • Set up a 529 savings plan that produces tax-free profits.
  • Compare the out-of-pocket costs for students and parents with how much the graduate is expected to earn after graduation. Websites such as edmit.me provide guidance based on family finances and other information submitted.
  • Scout for scholarships, both from colleges and the community.

Start a 529 savings account "pretty much coming out of the womb," said Peter Bergman, director of content at College Transitions, a private counseling service that includes several New Hampshire clients.

The "529 plan withdrawals can have a minimal impact on financial aid considerations, but they are weighted far more favorably than if the money was in a regular savings account in the student's name," Bergman said.

Ask whether it makes sense to accumulate $100,000 or more in student loans to get a degree that might not yield a well-paying job, he said.

"I think the dots that haven't been connected yet are how and which programs are going to do what for my kid," Bergman said. "This is what we're trying to hammer home for families."

Berube said parents need to ask their children about career goals.

"The earlier, the better," she said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a conversation about paying for college. What we hope is there is a discussion: What are your plans once you graduate? What do you want to be? Having a conversation around how do we get you to explore a career in anything?"

Learning about areas of interest, or doing a job shadow, might convince someone who likes animals but discovers "maybe veterinary science isn't for me" to study to become a vet tech or animal trainer instead.

Also talk about ways to pay for college and "how we might get there in the most cost-efficient way as a family," Berube said.

Most schools also offer merit-based scholarships, as well as various organizations.

"Free money for college," Berube said. "Make sure you get good grades. Make sure we have some things around community service in high school. When the time comes to apply for scholarships, you have some options."

Citizens Bank, the state's largest bank measured by deposits as of last year, said it was the first bank to allow students to refinance their loans after graduation -- saving customers nearly a billion dollars over time.

"Our big message is talk early, talk often and know your options," Roberts said.

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.