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Helping your kids earn college scholarships as early as kindergarten

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Paying for college is tough, not only for parents, but students too. Many rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt by the time their four years are up.

So how can you prepare?

ABC57 talked to the experts. And as it turns out, it's never too early to start planning.

Caroline Kitts is three-and-a-half years old. As a pre-K student, she spends most of her time learning letters, numbers and how to read.

College may seem far off for parents who have kids who are Caroline's age. But did you know your kids can start raking in scholarship dollars when they're just kindergartners?

"Some of the more popular scholarships for children under the age of 13 include Doodle 4 Google, where you color and create a drawing around a Google logo. The National Spelling Bee, that's a major scholarship competition," Publisher and Vice President of Research for "SavingForCollege.com" Mark Kantrowitz said.

Kantrowitz works to compile lists of these scholarships to help parents find, and help, their kids apply for competitions like The National History Day Contest, or those that are more unique.

"There's also scholarship for MIBSTERS. It's for kids who play with marbles. The king and queen of marbles each win a $5,000 scholarship for college," Kantrowitz said.

So, why apply so early?

"The reason why you should start searching for these scholarships younger, is because every dollar you won or save, is a dollar less you're going to have to borrow," Kantrowitz said.

"Scholarships are part of your plan for paying for college, but usually not the entire plan. Less than 0.2% of scholarship recipients, of bachelor degree students, receive scholarships totaling $25,000 or more," Kantrowitz said.

This is why he says time is your greatest asset.

"It's never too early. And you can start saving as early as they're born in a 529 by setting it up with the account owner and the beneficiary," Kantrowitz said.

School City of Mishawaka Superintendent Dr. Dean Speicher agrees. He doesn't recommend solely relying on scholarship money.

"Based on the research that I've done and my experience, expecting to get a scholarship for kindergarten-age students is not realistic. It's impractical," Speicher said.

He watches 70 to 75% of Mishawaka High School students go on to pursue post-secondary education after graduation. And he says the financial responsibility largely falls on parents.

"If a student has an interest in whatever the career path might be, and there's the potential that that student is interested some post-secondary education of some kind, the best thing that the parents can do is to begin saving early," Speicher said.

Experts say that's a smart move. They're predicting average tuition and fees will increase at a rate of about 5% each year.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, estimated in-state student expenses at Indiana University, for example, are expected to increase by nearly $150 from 2018 to 2022. It may not seem like much, but that means by the time next year's IU freshmen graduate, they will have racked up more than $42,000 in tuition and fees.

It's a similar story for Purdue. The NCES predicts there will be a less than 0.1% increase in Purdue's in-state expenses, totaling to just under $40,000 in four years.

However, this won't be the case for students at the University of Notre Dame. Next year's freshmen class can expect a $6,000 increase over the span of their four undergrad years, for a total of more than $225,000 in estimated expenses.

This is another reason why Kantrowitz encourages parents to look at public, in-state universities.

"Oftentimes your best deal is going to be your local, in-state, public college. And you get a great quality education there," Kantrowitz said.

Another option to think about is planning for your child to knock out some of those college credits early on in high school.

"The students who are coming out of that early college program will have, their parents, will have saved approximately a quarter of a million dollars next year, as their students move into post-secondary education, whether it be college, certification programs, or whatever it might be," Speicher said.

And that's why Caroline's parents, Brent and Kate, have a financial plan.

"We always knew we wanted to have a family. We also knew we wanted to set them up for success, so we started the 529s immediately when they were born," Kate Kitts said.

The couple just welcome their newborn son, Thomas, last month. And they say his arrival only makes financial planning for the future that much more important.

"We said from the beginning we wanted to set ourselves up for success, so that our children wouldn't have any financial stress that we had growing up," Kate said.

You can find a detailed list of scholarships for kids under the age of 13, along with tips and tools for planning for your child's post-secondary education on SavingForCollege.com.

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