As high school officially comes to a close for thousands of Louisiana seniors, students can put away their caps and gowns and prepare for a long, relaxing summer, right? Well, not exactly.

Things just aren’t that simple anymore. Decisions about whether to hit the beach or get a part-time job are now replaced by the question, After the next four years of college, should I get my masters, go to medical school or become a lawyer?

Simply put, college is no longer a luxury. It is now as much of a stepping-stone in education as kindergarten, grade school and junior high. So where does that leave me and other parents who want to prepare for the future? How do I pay for the estimated $120,000 needed to put my child through four years of college?

In addition to merit-based scholarships and grants, Louisiana families now have TOPS, which is helping more young people take advantage of higher education opportunities. You cannot count on these programs to pay for your child’s full college career, however. Some students fall short of acceptance requirements; others may lose scholarships after their first year of school; and all are required to pay for their own books, supplies and room and board.

Thats where Louisiana’s START college savings program comes in. START is like a savings account, but its sole purpose is to help you save for higher education.

Heres how it works. Parents or individuals can open a START account with as little as $10 and can continue to invest what they are comfortable with, whether its $10 or $10,000. Once you open a START account, the state will immediately begin matching your investment by 2 % to 14 % depending on your income. On top of that, families investing in the program have historically earned an average of 6 % interest on their invested funds.

One of the biggest benefits of the program, in my opinion, is that it is tax-free from start to finish. Individuals investing in START do not have to pay state or federal taxes on money in their accounts while it earns interest. When it is time to withdraw money for educational expenses, disbursements are also tax-free.

About 3,300 families have participated in the program since it began several years ago, and their investment has reached $4.8 million. If you’d like to join them, visit the Louisiana Department of the Treasury’s Web site, located at www.treasury.state.la.us or call 225-342-0010. You can also contact the Office of Student Financial Assistance at 1-800-259-5626, extension 1012.

Take advantage of START today so that when your child is ready to put high school in the past, you will be prepared for his or her future.