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3 tricks to crush college planning and save big

If you have a child in high school — or one even younger — it's a good time to check your college planning strategies.

It's a big month for college prep: Seniors passed the Decision Day deadline for making a final college enrollment choice, and high schoolers are taking their advanced-placement exams in the hopes of scoring some money-saving college credit.

Whether you're just starting to save, or ready to start scheduling campus tours and winnowing down your application choices, here's how to make sure you're on track to win at college planning:

1) Benchmark college savings

It's all too easy to go into sticker shock on college pricing, especially when you're trying to gauge future costs for a younger child. (What? You don't think you can come up with half a million bucks by the time your new baby is 18?)

Fidelity's new '2K' rule provides a quick gut check on whether you've saved enough. The math: Multiply your child's age by $2,000. If you have at least that much, you're on track to cover half the average cost of a four-year, public university.

To make the most of your savings, revisit the 529 plan. These tax-advantaged plans are getting more popular, but they're still misunderstood. There are lots of 529 misconceptions, such as thinking you have to use the plan in your home state (false), and that you lose the money if your kid doesn't go to college or gets a scholarship (not true).

"This is the best way to save for a child or grandchild's education, period, end of sentence," Young Boozer, chair of the College Savings Plans Network and state treasurer of Alabama, explains to CNBC.

Resources to read:

2) Cast a wide net on colleges

Look at a wide range of schools that could be a good financial fit, as well as a good academic fit. The College Board found that nearly three quarters of full-time students receive grant aid to help cover the cost of college — meaning that sticker price doesn't reflect what you could really expect to pay.

Some colleges have made low tuition a hallmark of admittance. How low? Try $0.

(And New York, of course, recently enacted legislation to make tuition free at public colleges for families earning $125,000 or less.)

Father and daughter
Sturti | Getty Images

But no-tuition deals typically come with strings attached, such as on-campus work requirements or commitments after graduation.

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3) Have the student debt talk

You would think, with $1.4 billion in student debt outstanding, that high school students would be worried about the prospect of student loans. Nope. A recent Navient survey found only four in 10 high school seniors think they'll borrow for their degree.

"It reflects that families aren't having the conversation early enough," Julie Wilson, head of research at Navient, told CNBC. "They might be waiting for acceptance letters before saying, 'How will we pay for this?'"

Having discussions early, and often, about how your family plans to handle college expenses can help you shape decisions on where to apply, how to spread out college savings and the best ways to borrow. Early awareness also gives your student time to pursue cost-cutting avenues such as advanced placement credits and scholarships.

Resources to read:

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