It's never too early to start planning for college.

Your kids are only in middle school. Too early to start thinking about college, right?

Not true.

College admission is a competitive process. Selective colleges are looking for students who have carefully planned their high school courses, dedicated themselves to achieving high grades and test scores, and pursued in-depth involvement in extracurricular activities. That takes years. College is also expensive, with tuition increasing at an average rate of 3% per year. So, how do you position your kids to get admitted to their school of choice and be able to afford it? Start in middle school.

I recently toured the campus of a popular, well-known, selective college that is likely on the college short-list of many high school seniors. During a presentation by the Senior Director of Admissions I was surprised to learn that the school places almost as much value on a student’s commitment to their community as they do to his or her academic accomplishments. They made it clear that they were looking for students who have spent considerable amounts of time making their communities better places. Sunday school helpers. Youth referees. Food bank workers. Pet shelter volunteers. Lions Heart participants. Tutors. Mentors. Big brothers. Assistant coaches. Best Buddies. Long-term, dedicated service to a small number of meaningful organizations that benefit members of their community. Long. Term. For students who start researching colleges in Junior year, it will likely be too late to put the time into the activities these admissions reps are looking for.

By starting early, your child can integrate purposeful extracurricular activities into his or her schedule over a long period of time. This shows commitment, time management, enthusiasm, and teamwork, all of which look great on a resume and a college application. How do you figure out what to get your child involved in? Look at what interests them. Does your child love to dance? Perhaps they can stay an extra hour after their own class to help out with a younger group. Do you attend a religious institution each week? See if they can assist the teacher with more junior classes. Is your child an athlete? What about being a youth referee? Is your child an excellent student? Have them be a peer tutor at school. The point is for them to understand that giving back to the community is what makes the world go around, and they can gain valuable leadership skills in the process. But a word of caution: don’t go overboard with commitments on your child’s time. While extracurricular activities are important, you still want them to be kids, and maintaining a balance that includes free time and sleep is important. That’s the beauty of starting early; smaller commitments over a longer period of time.

The second reason for starting early with college planning is cost. Currently, the average Cost Of Attendance (COA) at a Cal State school is $25,890 for California students. At a UC school, the average is $36,000. That’s somewhere between $100,000 - $150,000 for your child to obtain a Bachelor’s degree at a California state school. Costs at out of state and private institutions can be significantly higher. And did you say you had more than one child?

Even if you’ve been planning ahead and saving money for college for a number of years, these numbers can be pretty staggering. And if you haven’t thought much about paying for college before now, you may feel a little overwhelmed. However, it’s never too late to put the wheels in motion for college saving. Even small steps over the next five years could have a big impact on financing your child’s college education. They could mean the difference for your child between years of crippling student loan debt or a bright future after graduation.

So where do you begin? Start now by creating a roadmap for getting your child to college. First, consult a Certified Financial Planner to help you map out the best path to finance your future plans. A skilled CFP professional can help you organize, prioritize, restructure and maximize your finances to accommodate the burden of college costs. When our family moved to Ladera Ranch, we were fortunate to find Kara Marquez of Nautilus Advisors to guide us with our financial planning. Her experience, knowledge and out-of-the-box thinking was invaluable in creating a long-term plan for financial success that included putting two kids through college.

Second, help your child choose extracurricular activities that interest them and allow them to gain leadership skills while giving back to their community.

Third, engage the services of a local college consultant (Independent Educational Consultant) to help you navigate higher education options for your child. IEC’s provide invaluable information on career planning, course selection, academic programs, financial aid, cost savings, and admissions guidance. They can help you find post-secondary education choices that are a good match for you child academically, socially and financially. And those schools will allow your child to thrive and become the independent, happy human being you want them to be.

It’s never too early to start planning for college. One step at a time will take you down the road of preparedness that will help your kids be competitive with their college applications and put you in a better position to help them financially.

Bio: Sue Freeman is an Independent Educational Consultant in Ladera Ranch, CA. She is the owner and primary of Alma Matters Educational Consulting. Sue believes that which school you attend is not as important as what you accomplish there, and she seeks to find a perfect academic, social and financial fit for all her students.