College Game Plan

New parents: This is how much you need to save to cover college bills in 2036

Key Points
  • If you think college is expensive now, this is what it will cost in 18 years.
  • The numbers can be intimidating but can help you prepare.
New parents: This is how much college will cost in 18 years

Think college is expensive now? Then new parents will probably want to take a seat for this news.

In 2036, 18 years from now, four years at a private university will be around $303,000, up from $167,000 today.

To get a degree at a public university you'll need about $184,000 in 2036, compared with $101,000 now.

These forecasts were provided by Wealthfront, an automated investment platform that offers college saving options. It uses Department of Education data on the current cost of schools along with expected annual inflation to come up with its projections.

Here are the estimated changes in cost over the next 18 years for six well-known schools.

(The totals include tuition, room and board, supplies and other expenses for four years at the institution).

"Some of the universities are nearly half a million dollars — people get a little bit of sticker shock," said Kate Wauck, head of communications at Wealthfront.

"But once you have the power of knowing what cards are on the table you can start to make a plan," she said.

What is a 529?

Experts agree that 529 plans, tax-advantaged investment funds that can be used for education costs, are the best way for you to save for your child's college years.

The plans are state-run, but you don't have to open one in the state in which you live.

When should you start saving with one? 

Getty Images

"The sooner they start saving, the more the earnings can compound," said Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert.

If you start saving at your child's birth, about a third of the college savings goal will come from earnings, Kantrowitz said.

"If you wait until the child enters high school, less than 10 percent will come from earnings and you will have to save six times as much per month to reach the same goal," he said.

How to pick one 

Getty Images

Your first step in deciding on a 529 plan should be to learn if your state offers a full or partial state income tax deduction for your contribution, said Kim Lankford, contributing editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, who writes about the plans.

More than half of states, plus the District of Columbia, offer such a deduction, she said — and that perk often (but not always) makes it smart to stick with your home state's plan.

(Seven states allow you to claim a tax benefit even if you don't contribute to your own state's plan, according to Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania.)

Beyond taxes, you can compare plans by their investment options and fees. "Look at what funds they're invested in and if there are some you're familiar with and like already," Lankford said.

Many funds offer age-based plans, meaning the investments become less aggressive as your child's first day at college nears. As time goes on, keep tabs on your account to make sure it's being managed in a way you're comfortable with.

You can get a breakdown of 529 plans at

Parents saving for college hits an all-time high