GRANADA HILLS ( — This should be an exciting time of year for Niko Alzate. She’s headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in a month. But her anticipation at starting college is being dampened by the stress of figuring out how to pay for it.

Niko and her parents, Jody and Ivan Alzate, have been feverishly working on finding ways to pay for her education.

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The Alzates, both teachers, have four children, but they did not anticipate they would be in such a tight financial situation when it came time for their eldest daughter to go off to college.

Jody Alzate described Niko as a high-achieving, intelligent girl with a 4.3 grade point average and good test scores. They assumed her academic and athletic achievements would earn many merit-based scholarships, but reality was a big eye-opener.

“Every person who’s out there is a great student, and it’s so competitive,” she said.

Niko and her parents filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form and searched for other funding.

“I’ve applied for over 50 different scholarships,” she said.

“Nervous about how this is going to play out,” Jody Alzate said. “How am I going to do this again three more times?”

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Winnie Sun, managing director of Sun Group Wealth Partners in Irvine, recently visited the Alzates with both practical and financial advice.

“Stick with federal loans and stay away from private loans. Unless you think you’re going to pay it off very quickly, then you might consider using your home equity line of credit,” Sun said.

Sun also had a few short-term suggestions:

  • Consider only purchasing two-thirds of the dorm meal plan for flexibility.
  • Purchase used textbooks or borrow them from the school library.
  • Find a job in the dorm or on campus to subsidize housing.

The Alzates estimate Niko’s freshman year living in the dorms will cost about $21,000. To pay for it, Niko has a Cal Grant based on need of just under $5,000, a student loan of $5,000 and $10,000 supplemented by her parents.

For long-term planning, Sun offered these tips:

  • Look into taking advantage of the AOTC, or American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides a credit of up to $2,500 per year for up to four years for parents or families with children studying for an undergraduate degree.
  • Consider setting up a 529 plan, which would allow investments to grow 100 percent federal tax free if used for higher education.
  • Teach children about finances and encourage them to use cash.
  • Educate children about FICO scores and their credit.

“I want our other kids to start seeing what responsibilities they have and what they can do to help and know the numbers,” Jody Alzate said.

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For additional resources, Sun recommends searching to help students prepare for college.