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Be more realistic about what you’re saving for college

Good intentions alone – and maybe cutting out a few restaurant dinners – won’t cover a college tuition bill, of course.

But there appears to be a real disconnect between what many parents plan to contribute toward college and how much money they’re saving.

Parents on average intend to cover about 64 percent of their children’s total college costs, according to Fidelity’s eighth annual College Savings Indicator Study. They expect the college student to put some skin in the game and work part-time jobs, take out loans and tap into their own savings to cover the rest of the bill.

But here’s the reality: Parents are shockingly on track in their savings to cover just 28 percent of that goal.

Whoops. So what happens when parents don’t save what they wanted? Does the student get stuck covering more than 70 percent of the cost of college tuition, campus living, books, fees and the rest?

Or would parents have to make a last-minute scramble, use their savings, work two or three jobs and slash everyday spending to come up with extra money while the student is in college?

Keith Bernhardt, vice president for college planning at Fidelity, said parents may need to take a more practical look on ways to boost that savings.

Maybe it means reallocating some money once spent on preschool toward college savings – once the child gets older.

Maybe it means asking Grandma and Grandpa to donate money toward a college plan, instead of buying a birthday gift. Maybe parents could request college savings contributions for a baby, too.

Slightly more than half of parents surveyed have the misconception that saving too much money for college will impact their child’s eligibility for financial aid. But several experts say a parent is better off saving than not.

Financial aid, Bernhardt said, often focuses more on a family’s income than savings. Parental assets (not including retirement accounts) reduce financial aid eligibility by almost 6 percent of the asset value each year, he said.

About half surveyed also believe that if their child receives financial aid, the money would not need to be paid back. But student loans are counted as part of financial aid, and many loans do need to be paid back.

Other points to consider:

• The sticker price isn’t what many families actually pay for college.

The College Board website has a Net Price information site that looks at what students pay compared with the sticker price.

In 2013-14, for example, full-time students enrolled in public four-year institutions received an estimated average of $5,770 in grants and scholarships to help them pay the average published tuition and fees of $8,890, according to the College Board.

To be sure, parents and students still have room and board costs so the College Board net price figure would understate the amount of money families actually pay, said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president & publisher

Good news: When researching schools, take time to find a net price for that university. The federal government requires most colleges to have a net price calculator on their websites.

• Some tax breaks can help with saving for college in 529 plans.

The college savings conversation needs to start, of course, early in the back-to-school season, ideally that first day of kindergarten.