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Mass. families stepping up college savings efforts

68% put funds aside, Fidelity study says

Families in Massachusetts appear to be saving more aggressively for college, as the cost of a degree continues to rise along with the prospect of heavy education debts that could burden their children for many years.

Sixty-eight percent of families in the state say they have started saving for college, up from 59 percent in 2008, according to an annual college savings report by Fidelity Investments that will be released on Wednesday.

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“We’re encouraged that we’re moving forward,” said Tom Graf, the executive director of the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, which partnered with the investment firm on the seventh annual survey.

The increases may reflect a recovering economy that has allowed more parents to set aside money for college while they pay routine bills and save for their own retirement, said Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college savings at Fidelity. Nationwide, the number of parents saving for college has also risen, he said.

Parents across the country gave themselves an average grade of B-minus on college savings in the Fidelity study. Bernhardt said that grade may be too generous.

‘We’re encouraged that we’re moving forward.’

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Though parents want to save about 60 percent of the cost of college, they are on track to put away enough to pay just 22 percent of those bills, he said.

The average cost of attending a four-year institution is nearly $135,000 total, according to the College Board. Even as tuition and fees have increased, more students than ever are attending college.

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Israela Adah Brill-Cass, an attorney from Mansfield with a daughter in high school and a 12-year-old son, said the cost of college has become “mind-blowingly expensive.”

She and her husband have invested in tax-free college savings accounts, so-called 529 plans, for their children, and also hold certificates of deposit and savings bonds. Brill-Cass, who is the executive director of the Boston Law Collaborative, said she also started teaching at Emerson College recently with the idea that, as a college professor, she may gain a tuition discount for her children.

“We want them to be as debt-free as possible,” added her husband, David Cass, 47. Both husband and wife are still paying off their own student loans from law school and don’t want similar debt to hamper their children’s futures.

“It’s like an anchor,” Cass said.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that between 2007 and 2010, the average student loan balance for households climbed by nearly 15 percent, even as other consumer debt loads declined. It said the burden of student debt could force young graduates to delay starting a family, buying a house, or launching a small business.

In the Fidelity study, the percentage of parents worrying about hefty student loans has grown, from 65 percent in 2007 to 78 percent this year.

To reduce their debt, parents said they are likely to ask their children to work part time during school to pay expenses, live at home instead of a dormitory, and take online courses, Bernhardt said.

Bill Driscoll, a financial adviser in Plymouth, said his clients are saving money, but they are also changing their mind-set about college.

Younger parents don’t necessarily believe that their children need to attend a marquee school to make sure they have a job after graduation.

More families are also willing to play schools against each other and accept the offer from the college providing the most aid, Driscoll said.

“I think there was understanding that kids went to college to find their way, now it’s you go to college to find the job,” he said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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