A common question for families revolves around how the average American family actually pays for college. Does the average family pay out-of-pocket, pile up debt, or pull from retirement? Luckily, we don’t have to guess the answer to this question. Sallie Mae, a leading student loan provider in the United States – publishes research on this very topic on an annual basis. This report shows that families fund college through a diverse range of vehicles including student income and savings (8%), student borrowing (13%), scholarships and grants (25%), relatives (1%), and parent borrowing (8%). The final and largest slice of the pie? Parent income and savings at 44%. No doubt, the parents reading this will not be pleased as they are asked to shoulder a larger and larger share of the college burden.

Many anxious families desire this information to benchmark their own actions as they stare at a financial aid package that comes up woefully short. Sadly, by this point in the process, the data merely confirms their fears, underscoring the need to plan early and obtain the right information at every point in the college planning process.

If the above research piques your interest, it’s not a bad idea to check out all Sallie Mae’s current research reports. In fact, their research answers other important questions, such as a family’s main considerations for selecting a school. Interestingly, today’s shockingly high sticker price for a college education has not established the “total cost of a degree” as the primary consideration for most families. This consideration hovers at 32%, below location, financial aid offers, and a college’s program offerings.

The research goes on to disclose that only 54% of families have a plan for how to pay for a college education. Indeed, this might not even be a good plan. Additionally, only 2/3 of families have discussed how they will pay for college as a unit. Undoubtedly, this delayed discussion and lack of planning can have a negative impact on overall financial security.

So what gives? Perhaps your family is prepared, has a solid plan, and ready to pay for college out of current savings and earnings. If not, a college planner or consultant can certainly add value to a family in the college planning process through creating a diversified school list, targeting schools that are generous with financial aid, and helping your student find the right fit.