More High School Teens Save for College

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Texas high school junior Alexis Weitzer, 17, is a typical teenager who, when she's not on the field playing softball, spends the afternoon working at a retirement home to save money for college.

"I was influenced by other kids' stories on how hard it once you get to college and if you don't plan ahead of time," said Weitzer, who attends high school in Grapevine, Texas. "I really don't want to have to worry about paying off student loans, especially once I exit college."

The 17-year-old senior is one of many teenagers in the U.S. who is more proactive about saving for higher education. More high school student are earning money for college than in previous years, influenced by growing awareness of the cost of a college education and the burden of student loan debt.

Over 53% of high school students already have a job to earn money for college compared to 46% of students in 2012, according to College Savings Foundation. Of that number, 29% of students are putting aside money into a 529 college savings plan.

Nearly half of the high school students in the survey had started saving and 77% of those students who had savings had reached $1,000.

"We have some of the raw numbers and appears we have more kids focused upon saving," said Mary Morris, chair of College Savings Foundation on the organization's findings on the uptick of high school students saving more for higher education.

High school students are taking traditional jobs such as a summer lifeguard or part-time positions to gain experience and save for college, 529 college savings experts say.

"Many kids focus on internships and hopefully as the economy improves you find more internships that are actually paying, particularly once they are in college, " Morris said.

Aliyah Wooten, a 17-year-old teenager from Richmond, Va., began saving for college in her sophomore year through a paid internship with Partnership for the Future, an organization geared toward helping academic high student with limited resources.

"I started saving, because I'm not going to have as much money in my savings account in comparison to someone's parents who started saving for them as a child," Wooten told MainStreet.

Wooten applied for an internship with Partnership for the Future in the ninth grade and has been putting money into her account for the past two years.

"Realistically, I can't put all the money into my 529 account, so I try to do a little with each pay check," said the Virginia teen who plans to study business as her major at a four-year college. "Say I get paid $500 in check, I might put in $200."

The future business major plans to save $2,000 before college with her internship program at Partnership for the Future will match her savings dollar per dollar, helping the high school senior reach the $4,000 mark.

"If family members do decide to give me money, then I could reach $5,000," Wooten said.

Horror stories of student loaned debt by college graduates spurred Wooten to save up money for college and apply for scholarships.

"I don't want to take out loans," Wooten said. "I want that to be my last option and that's why I am working so hard to get scholarships rather than taking out a loan. I think student loans kind of trap you and your growth in the future and can be a burden."

Since 2008, college saving experts say there has been an increased awareness on the rising cost of tuition and student loan debt.

"We're seeing a lot more awareness that you really need to save for college because it's too expensive to pay as you." said Betty Lochner, director of Washington's 529 Prepaid Tuition Program.

College tuition has risen in the last year by a modest 2.9% in the last year, according to the College Board. Even with the slowdown in rising tuition hikes, many high students were unable a part-time job until recently in an improved job market.

"There was a time when kids couldn't get a job because they were competing with people who had been let go with 20 years of experience," Lochner said.

529 college saving experts say overall financial literacy has improved and aspiring college applicants and their families are thinking more long-term, saving money much earlier.

"If I was to give advice to students it would be to work during the school year because you can start to save throughout the year, and that's going to help you in the long run," Wooten said.

--Written by Farran Powell for MainStreet

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