Why Co-signing a Loan is the Best Way to Help Your Kids Borrow for College

I know, you love your child and want the best college for them.  They worked so hard but are a little – or a lot – short of affording their dream school.  Don’t fall into the parent trap of borrowing heavily for college at the expense of your retirement.  You can help them without hurting yourself.  Here’s how to find the middle ground.

Start by framing the discussion like this: college loans should be the last resort, not the first option.  First, look to savings to reduce future debt.  Even if you start late in high school, it’s ok because bills will continue to arrive four or more years down the road. Saving a dollar today beats borrowing one tomorrow. Here’s an article on college affordability and a podcast.

Next, look for free money: gifts from relatives, grants and scholarships that do not have to be repaid.  Here’s an overview of need vs. merit based aid, and a drill-down on grants.

Finally, determine if you or the student can contribute earnings while the student is in-school racking up those bills.   When savings plus free money plus current income exceeds the cost, no loans are necessary.   Be sure to account for all four (or more) years the student will be a college student, if there is a gap between expected cost and available resources, then it’s time to consider loans.  For most students, the Federal Loan program is by far the best option when you consider the interest rate and repayment terms.  One problem: the amount that can be borrowed is capped.

Let’s assume that the student takes a government loan but a gap still remains between the cost of college and the sources of money. Now all eyes turn to you (or perhaps grandparents or other relatives) for help.

The BEST ADVICE:

  • Co-sign a loan and make sure it has a co-signer release. Many private loans now have a feature to permit you to be dropped from the loan once your child establishes their own good credit.   With this type of college borrowing, you effectively lend your established credit profile to your child so they can be approved for a loan at a time they would not qualify on their own.   Once a good repayment record on the loan is established, the student should contact the loan provider to release you, the co-signer, from future obligations to pay.  Co-signer release is a terrific feature because it permits you to help your child borrow when they need your help. And for you to be released from that obligation when they get on their financial feet.

If there’s no way around it and you have to be the designated borrower, you should:

  1. Shop around. Many parents with good credit can receive substantially lower interest rates on private loans from banks, finance companies or state agencies than the Federal PLUS program.
  2. Be VERY wary of the Federal PLUS Loan. Parents with marginal or bad credit may be eligible for a Federal PLUS loan, but be wary.  The credit analysis used to approve a PLUS loan is minimal and the amount that can be borrowed is very high (the full cost of attendance).  Sounds good?  It’s not.  It is a toxic stew. The government regularly makes large loans to people who will be unable to make the payments.  This is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.   Also, some parents falsely surmise that they will transfer their PLUS loan to the student in the future.  That is not possible under the terms of the PLUS loan. It is a Parent loan, not a student loan.
  3. NOT borrow from your retirement accounts to pay for your child’s college. It sure sounds good to “repay yourself” the interest that accrues on a loan rather than paying a bank, but it is a terrible idea. Why?  Every dollar you withdraw from your retirement account is one less that can earn interest, dividends or appreciate to grow your retirement savings – and at a time when your retirement is fast approaching.  Just as young families are instructed to start saving early to benefit from compounding, older savers should avoid touching the nest egg because you (we) are running out of time to grow the account. This is no time to stretch.

If you’re a data hound and seek some data about parent (and grandparent) borrowing, check out the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s recently released “Snapshot of Older Consumers and Student Loan Debt.”

Like many data analysis, this one can be used to support both sides of an argument.   Here, (a) older (age 60+) borrowers are under stress and (b) older borrowers are doing ok.     The CFPB report compares the 10 year period 2005-2015.  The data in parenthesis is 2005 data as cited in the report:

Older borrowers are under stress:

  • Consumers age 60+ is fastest growing segment of the student loan market
    • They owe $66.7 billion
    • There are 2.8 million older borrowers, (up from 700,000)
    • They owe on average $23,500, (up from $12,100)
  • Delinquencies are up from 7.4% (2005) to 12.5% (2015)
    • 37% of borrowers over 64 are in default
    • 40,000 have Social Security benefits offset (8,700 in 2005)

Older borrowers are doing ok:

  • 73% is borrowed for children or grandchildren – indicating a choice to help rather than being burdened by their own debt.
  • Fewer than 31% of older borrowers owed federal loans (867,000 of 2.8 million)
    • Fewer than 7.5% held PLUS Loans (210,000 holders)
  • Of 2.8 million borrowers, only 1,100 lodged loan complaints with the CFPB

What does this all mean?

To me, it’s clear.

  1. Parents should establish a college savings program for their family that is appropriate for their financial situation.
  2. Students should seek financial aid by filing the required forms.
  3. Parents and students should realistically assess how much current income each can contribute to defray costs while the student is in school.
  4. Students should be primarily responsible for taking loans for college. The federal loan program is the best solution for most of them.
  5. If parents are enlisted to help their students with loans, they should contribute by co-signing a loan with a co-signer release.
  6. If parents need to be the sole obligor to borrower for their child’s education, they should shop around, be wary of the federal PLUS program and not borrow from their retirement account.

I can’t help but think of the airline oxygen mask analogy.   There is a reason we’re instructed to put on our oxygen mask before taking care of a child.   Incapacitated parents are of no help to kids.  The same is true for parent borrowing for college.  If you feel compelled to help borrower for a child or grandchild’s education, be sure not to imperil your future well-being.  Co-signing a loan helps the next generation achieve their dream of a college education without imperiling your dream of comfortable twilight years.

‘Tis the season for College Savings: 3 Painless Holiday Tips

The year-end affords the opportunity to reflect and optimistically plan ahead. Use these three holiday hints to get started and by this time next year, you’ll be proud of your accomplishments. (…and don’t forget to clue in grandparents and other relatives to get a bigger bang for your buck!):

  • Check the couch for loose change – 2017 style:   I was riding the elevator with a woman who was reading Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams and she offered one of the best tips I’ve heard:
    couch-money
    …find more than loose change in your checking account

    Check the automatic payments connected to your checking account and cancel those you don’t regularly use or need.   She found more than $75 per month – loose change in the couch, 2017 style.  Next year, her re-allocated spending will fill up a 529 college savings plan with nearly $1,000. It’s repurposed “found money” that has no impact on her current spending or life style. Brilliant. How much can you find?

  • Make the Gift of College a Holiday Present: 2016 was a breakthrough year for innovation to make savings in 529 Plans easier. According to the College Savings Foundation, 90% of parents said that online and other gifting options would make college savings easier – and their holiday wish has been fulfilled. These innovations come in many variations so finding options that work well for your family should be easy. The College Savings Foundation outlines the various opportunities, which include:
    • Online gifting and/or gift certificates and coupons that can be printed and presented as gifts – with the gifted amount automatically deposited into a 529 account.
    • Emailed invitations offering gift givers access to make a gift directly into a 529 account.
    • Customized web pages with family or beneficiary (student) specific information.
    • GiftofCollege cards available at Toys’R’Us and Babies’R”Us or from some employers allows gifts to be made into any 529 Plan offered in the country.
  • Use Credit Card “Cash-Back” Rewards to Fill up 529 Plans. Find a credit card linked directly to 529 Plans or be disciplined about depositing Cash Back Rewards from other cards into a college savings account. The great things about these programs is that they allow you to fill your 529 coffers as you go through your normal day: no behavioral changes are necessary. Just be sure to not roll-up big credit card bills that you can’t pay in full each month to avoid paying big interest that will easily wipe-out the amount you can save.
    • Credit Cards linked to College Savings. There are several credit cards that permit users to accumulate cash back rewards to be deposited into 529 account. Some of these programs include:
    • CollegeCounts 529 Rewards Visa Card offers 1.529% back for those with a 529 Account offered by Union Bank in Alabama’s 529 Program and the Illinois Bright Horizons.
    • Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card offers 2% cash back to certain Fidelity accounts including Fidelity managed 529 Plans.
    • The Upromise MasterCard offers a range of cash-back benefits depending on the products purchased and the merchant from which they were purchased.
    • Other Cash Back Cards. Even if your credit card is not directly linked to a 529 Plan, you could easily take some or all of those cash rewards and deposit them into a 529 Plan. Every bit helps!
    • Learn more: “Using a credit card to save for college” from New York Times Money Adviser.

Each of these will allow you to increase savings without changing any of your current spending or giving habits. Find one or more that work well for your family. Recruit grandparents, relatives and friends to help and you’ll accumulate a nice nest egg that will no doubt reduce the amount that might need to be borrowed for college later. A dollar saved today is better than one borrowed tomorrow!

Send your success stories and other tips to info@Inviteeducation.com as you plan, save and succeed in 2017.

Happy Holidays!

John Hupalo is the Founder of Invite Education and co-author of the recently released book: Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams: A Parent’s Step-by-Step Guide from Pre-K to Senior Year

A Mixed Bag of Tricks & Treats in the College Board’s 2016 “Trends” Reports

College data nerds love late October.  Why?  The College Board releases its annual Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid   These reports, much like Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College, are chock full of  data and analysis to understand important trends in how American families plan and pay for college.   At the very least, be sure to read the Highlights and Introductions in each report.

As in years past, it’s a mixed bag of results with sprinklings of good news, bad news and news that can be used to support seemingly contradictory arguments.

Good news from the reports:

  • College loan borrowing declined for the fifth consecutive year.
    • Undergraduates and their families borrowed 18% less than 5 years ago.
    • For undergraduates, federal and non-federal loans constituted 36% of funds used to supplement student and family resources – the lowest amount in 20 years
    • Only 10% of undergraduates leave college with more than $40,000 of debt
  • Total grant aid now exceeds $125 billion having increased almost 90% from 1995-2005 and then another 79% in the next decade.
  • Institutional grant aid has almost doubled over the past 10 years from $29.1 billion in 2005 -06 to $54.7 billion in 2015-16.
    • Grant aid accounts for the highest level of funds used by undergraduates to supplement their own resources over the past 20 years.

Bad news from the reports:

  • Pell Grant expenditures for the nation’s neediest student continued to decline from $39.1 billion at the peak in 2010 to $28.2 billion in 2015 (but is still more than 80% greater than pre-financial crisis spending).
    • The number of Pell Grant recipients declined for the fourth consecutive year (but the percentage of undergrad recipients is up to 33% from 25% a decade earlier.
  • Public funding (state and local appropriations) peaked in 2007-08 at $85.2 billion and declined 9% to $77.6 billion for 2014-15.
    • We’re spending less on public education than 30 years ago: funding per FTE student is 11% lower than it was 30 years ago
    • Declining state revenues per student are resulting in the rising prices at state schools.

Mixed news from the reports: could be better or could be worse

  • Tuition and fees continue to outpace inflation — rising from 2.2% to 3.6%, but the rate of increase is less than previous years
  • The favorable trend of net price declines from 2008-2010 reversed. Net prices paid are now increasing again, but – and it’s a big but – the net price paid at 4 year private and 2 year public schools in 2016-17 is still less than what was paid in 2006-07.
  • Total federal grants to undergraduates nearly doubled from 2005-2015 to $41.7 billion in 2015-16, but $10 billion less than the peak in 2010-11.

Facts from the reports that we’ll all be using in the coming year:

  • Total federal aid to undergraduate and graduate students: $240.9 billion
  • Total non-federal borrowing: $11 billion
  • More than 70% of full-time students receive some grant aid.
  • In-state college costs vary widely (from $5,060 to $15,650) depending on the state of residence
  • Undergraduates received an average of $14,460 per FTE student in financial aid
  • Default rates are highest for borrowers with balances less than $5,000 and decline as balances increase
  • 14 million students took $18 billion in tax credits and tax deductions. Nearly 25% of these recipients had incomes between $100,000 and $180,000.
  • The federal work-study program is relatively small: 632k students earned $982 million

Here’s what struck me when considering the reports and their context.

  1. The College Board does a painstaking job of presenting apples-apples analysis for consistency, but be careful when comparing these data to data in other reports – particularly data related to cost of colleges (i.e. know if it’s 2 or 4 year, in-state or out, all-costs or just tuition and fees, etc).
  2. With a glass half-full approach, the data on loans is most encouraging to me: total amount borrowed is down considerably and most students are not over borrowing. The obvious conclusion: future college graduates will feel less strain than their predecessors.  A less obvious question:  is borrowing down because students are choosing less expensive schools, are they receiving more aid or is it a combination?
  3. The financial crisis is now nearing its 10th Anniversary.  We’ve seen how the market (students, parents, governmental entities and colleges/universities) reacted and now how it is normalizing.  In the teeth of the crisis and the subsequent recession, tuition and fees increased significantly when compared to inflation but families actually paid less because the federal government stepped up and provide more grant aid and tax credits.  That trend has reversed as increases in aid no longer exceed increases in college costs — hopefully families will not fall into the trap of therefore increasing the amounts they borrow to reach for a school they cannot truly afford.

With data showing both advancements and set-backs in the college financing market, I continue to strongly believe that:

What do you think?

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John Hupalo is the Founder of Invite Education and co-author of the recently released book: Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams: A Parent’s Step-by-Step Guide from Pre-K to Senior Year

Three Simple Ideas to Start Fixing the Student Loan Mess

I’m back from a few days in Washington, DC.   Despite working on Capitol Hill for two years, I’m still struck by the disconnect that seems to exist between our real world and their political world.   These ecosystems need to collide if we’re going to seriously begin addressing the real world student loan debt crisis.  Here are three simple ideas that would help borrowers immediately and could be the basis for a long-term solution to the spiraling college debt problem:

  • Stop categorizing federal loans as “aid” on Financial Aid Award Letters
  • Stop charging students and parents origination fees to obtain federal loans
  • Start requiring the Direct Loan Program to report Annual Percentage Rate (APR) calculations

We know the statistics: there is $1.3 trillion of student loan debt outstanding. We’ve heard the sound bites: college loans hamstring graduates who have taken on piles of debt and are underemployed.  So what’s the answer? Previously I’ve offered my thoughts about college affordability and ways for students to avoid excessive debt. However, there are some factors that are simply out of their control and need to be fixed in Washington. And soon.

In the political world, current efforts are largely focused on relieving over-leveraged borrowers of repayment stress with loan forgiveness programs and income-based repayment plans. Great, but these programs address the problem after it has occurred and leave the root causes untouched.   We need to fix the problem at the source. In this case, before a loan is made.

Transparency and disclosure are all the rage – and rightfully so. But, the federal government comes up woefully short in providing adequate disclosure in two critical areas for the Direct Loan Program:

  • Marketing loans via colleges
  • The total cost to borrowers

Did you know that the federal government:

  1. Permits colleges to categorize federal student loans as “aid” on Financial Aid Award Letters.
  2. Charges borrowers fees but does not disclose an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) for their loan?

In effect, the largest student loan lender — with over a 90% market share — permits itself to market student loans as financial aid through colleges and universities without disclosing the APR. I bet the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would have a field day with a private lender engaged in these business practices.

Loans as “Aid”

Remember the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing? I do whenever I think about a high school senior first encountering a student loan “awarded” via the financial aid process.   Or worse, a parent relieved that their child’s dream college is within reach because they’ve been “awarded” a PLUS loan. A PLUS loan is packaged as “aid” but it comes with big up-front fees and encourages parents to borrow up to the full cost of attendance as long as they don’t have adverse credit — a very low level of scrutiny. Intentional or not, the disingenuous miscategorization of loans as aid no doubt confuses borrowers and leads to some very bad decisions regarding college affordability.

APR not required for a lender with a 91% market share 

According to the College Board, for Academic Year 2013-14, approximately $113 billion of student loans were made. Approximately $9.7 billion of these loans were made by non-federal lenders, mostly banks, credit unions, finance companies and some state based entities.   Few, if any, charge fees to originate the loans, and all are carefully watched to ensure consumers are treated fairly and receive proper disclosures including APR calculations.

Then we have the other lender, the federal government, which made more than $103 billion in student loans.   This monopolistic market share resulted from a long political struggle to replace private lenders participating in the government’s guaranteed student loan program with a nationalized student loan program under the auspices of the Department of Education.

No matter your opinion of the Direct Loan Program, can anyone make an argument to justify:

  1. Why government charges fees to obtain loans when private lenders do not?
  2. Why the Department of Education is not required to disclose an APR?

The Good News – Thanks to the DoE

Kudos to the Department of Education for recognizing the first problem addressed here – student loans nicely wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of a Financial Aid Award Letter.   Beginning in Academic Year 2013-14, the DoE introduced its Federal Aid Shopping Sheet, which asks colleges to CLEARLY show the:

  • Cost of attending the college
  • Amount of grants and scholarships awarded to the student
  • Net Price that the family will pay.

The standardized form then delineates what options the family has to pay those net costs:

  • Work options
  • Federal loan options
  • Other options including non-federal loans

Thousands of colleges have agreed to use the Federal Aid Shopping Sheet but thousands do not. Some likely add to the confusion by providing students with both the institution’s Financial Aid Award Letter and the Federal Aid Shopping Sheet.

Here’s a federal regulation I would support: require all Title IV eligible colleges to use the same form of a Financial Aid Award Letter with simple and clear disclosures so families can easily compare the cost, aid packages and options for filling the gap.   Don’t re-invent the wheel: the Shopping Sheet seems to fit the bill very nicely.

A Final Thought

To end where I started: our political leaders, no matter how well intentioned, seem stuck on a very unproductive treadmill of churning out sound bites about the student loan mess.   They’re spending too much political capital addressing the symptoms of the problem rather than actually fixing it at the root.  It’s time to replace political sound bites with real world actions to help families avoid excessive student debt.  My suggestions:

  1. Require all Title IV eligible schools to use the Federal Student Aid Shopping Sheet
  2. Stop charging students and parents fees to obtain federal loans – the private student lenders do not charge fees
  3. Provide APRs to federal borrowers

What do you think?

 

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John Hupalo is the Founder of Invite Education and co-author of the recently released book: Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams: A Parent’s Step-by-Step Guide from Pre-K to Senior Year

Student debt crisis does not require a big government solution. Here’s my full Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal

Kudos to WSJ for maintaining focus on the student debt crisis and offering its pages to voice various views.  On Wednesday, August 10th, the Journal  printed my Letter to the Editor — see the full letter below.

My view in short: families empowered with better information, tools and services AND the emotional demeanor to choose less expensive schools over “brand-name” schools can avoid excessive student debt.  The educational outcome is likely to be excellent and their return on investment substantially better because they did not choose a higher cost, debt laden path.

What do you think?

To the Editor:

My career has been focused on helping families plan and pay for college: 20+ years as student loan investment banker, former CFO of First Marblehead Corporation (NYSE:FMD), school board member, education entrepreneur and, recently, the co-author of “Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams.”

Sheila Bair hits a few of the high notes of the college financing crisis. The root problem: everyone’s to blame. The Congress has tinkered around the edges of a student loan program established in 1965 when it provided many students with low cost loans with caps that nearly covered 100% of education costs. The current Administration’s political response is to find ways to forgive student loans. Colleges have zero incentive to control costs. Some for-profit schools are bogus. Taxpayers appear oblivious to the fact that we pay for every defaulted and forgiven federal loan. Borrowers seemingly prefer the status of victim of greedy lenders and corrupt schools to educated consumer that no one forces to sign a loan note.

College affordability is within the grasp of all families starting with the acceptance of personal responsibility for the contracts signed.   Loans should be the last resort, not the first alternative, to pay for college – no matter what the government or the schools say. Families should first use savings, financial aid, scholarships, current income and other “free money.”  Then project the total amount of debt that might be needed. If it exceeds the projected first year salary after college, the school is not affordable. Finding a less expensive school, working for a year, living at home or taking any number of other actions is far preferable to being the next headlined poster child in the college financing crisis.   This is a solvable problem that does not require a big government solution.

 

Choose Words Carefully & Improve Business: A Lesson from the State Treasurer’s Conference

Conference sessions tend to blur together but not this one:  “New Word Order – It’s Not What You Say, It’s What They Hear.” Gary DeMoss from Invesco Consulting blew the doors off of the Treasury Management Training Symposium with a riveting 50 minute discussion on how financial institutions can obtain substantially better results by paying attention to the language they use with customers and prospects. Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 8.43.40 AM For the skeptics out there, I don’t know Gary and have no relationship with Invesco so this is not an inside commercial message disguised as a social media tip.   It was simply one of those light bulb moments that I want to share with you. It was that powerful.

So what’s the secret?  Words matter. A lot.

Gary presented the science behind learnings with regard to word and phrase choices that make our customers receptive to our message — or angry.  None of us intentionally intends to infuriate our customers, but we might well be doing so unintentionally.

He handed out a deck of nine cards with words/phrases on the front and back, and asked us to signal the phrase or word we thought best registered with our customers.  Here are the pairs:

  1. Knowledgeable vs Experienced
  2. Minimize my losses vs. Maximize my gains
  3. Works as advertised vs. New and improved
  4. Financial freedom vs. Financial security
  5. Voluntary contributions to my retirement plans vs. Automatic contribution to my retirement plan
  6. Transparent fees vs. Straightforward fees
  7. Long-term strategy vs recovery strategy
  8. Diversified vs Not correlated to the market
  9. Investment Strategies vs. Investment solutions

Not one person in our entire group of more than 150 correctly selected all nine preferred words — in fact, half the group of financial professionals was knocked out after the very first pairing (which was not necessarily the one above — I likely mixed up the cards on the way home).  Only five people were left for the last pairings before they too were tripped up.   Thankfully, Gary said we’re not alone; only a handful of people over many thousands correctly identified all nine.  I’d like to meet at least one them to help me with next year’s NCAA basketball pool!

Here’s what I learned — Gary’s Four Ps when communicating financial language. Apologies if my cryptic notes didn’t capture all of the concepts but there’s enough here for you to consider.  If you need more (and I do), consider  his book “The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.”   My copy is in the mail.

  1. Positive and hopeful.  Words like “fees” make our customers angry.  Fees are everywhere and they raise the hair on everyone’s neck.  Avoid calling your charges fees at all costs.  In fact, “costs” are more palatable because they  don’t trigger those same negative reactions in consumers. 
  2. Plausible.  Consumers want credible messages in today’s world of the incredible.  “Financial Security” rings truer than “Financial Freedom.”  Financial freedom sounds unattainable for most but security is something customers understand.
  3. Plain English.  Enough with the technical jargon and phrases we financial professionals seem to relish.  The problem:  even the best dressed white collar types miserably flunked man-on-the street interviews asking about basic financial terms.   We may believe we know what our client’s know,  but many (most?) of our clients don’t understand or  misinterpret our language.   “Strategy” is more appealing than “solution.”  Good words include long-term, strategy and diversified.
  4. Personalized.   Customers want to know we’re thinking about them — not ourselves.  Use “You” rather than “I.”  Tell what your product does, not what it is and emphasize the benefits.

I already put this to good use in some material we’re providing to our customers. I hope you find it helpful too.  This session – among a group of generally very good sessions — certainly gave me plenty of food for thought on my way home.

 

John’s Jots #4: Defining College Affordability

Guess what – there isn’t a standard definition of an affordable college.   Google “Affordable Colleges” or “Is College Affordable for Me?” and you get a hodgepodge. No wonder families are overwhelmed when trying to figure out how they know if they can afford college or if they’re saving enough. How can families assess the financial fit of a college when the “experts” can’t agree on what it means for a college to be affordable?

I’d like to solve this problem for families.  I’ll tell you what I think — let me know if you agree or not — with the hope that we can start to demystify this important question.

First, despite the current good-faith efforts by many, my google search for “Affordable Colleges” amplified the problem.  The returns included:

  • The 100 most affordable colleges — after community colleges and others were eliminated from the sample.  But those that were eliminated are likely very affordable options.
  • Affordable colleges ranked by ROI — a measure that many champion as “the answer” which may be true if you can accurately predict a student’s future income and the total cost of college before your student enters.  Although I like ROI calculations and it’s a financial term that many use because it sounds sophisticated, its fundamental  value is as a backward looking comparative tool.  Like all such measures, the output  can only be as accurate as the inputs, which in the case of predicting college costs and post-graduate wages are highly variable, at best.
  • Affordable colleges ranked by annual tuition and expected income — the winners were the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, which don’t charge tuition but require a highly selective appointment.
  • Advice to attend a community college for two years, then attend a state school, live at home, buy used textbooks, work at a paying job during the summer and avoid debt.

All good — but not particularly specific to guide a family. So I tried to narrow the search by asking “Is College Affordable for Me?”  I hoped that would give me more personal financial advice.  Here’s what I found:

  • A U.S. Department of Education Blog, which is mostly cheerleading about the  Administration’s efforts. The efforts, like most high-level policies are well intended, but don’t specifically help me unless I like to eat tax credits.
  • Many articles arguing to make some colleges free — likely driven by the election sound bites to make community colleges free.  A interesting political idea but somebody’s still going to have to pay for the college experience.  In this case, taxpayers.
  • A link to The Lumina Foundation’s excellent study arguing that a college is affordable if the total cost of a bachelor’s degree does not exceed the total of 10% of a family’s discretionary income over 5 years plus the amount a student can earn working 10 hours per week during the school year.  It’s mostly applicable to lower income families but is a useful guide.

Kudos to Lumina for more good work and an attempt to address the issue.   But what’s the answer for most families?  How does a family know if a college is affordable?

There are 5 factors that determine if a college is affordable without taking on debt:

  1. The college selected. Families have  COMPLETE control over this important part of the equation.   There are over 7,000 colleges and  universities — one will certainly be a good academic, social and financial fit.  Picking a college based on cost is one sure fire way of ensuring that it is affordable.  The problem: many, if not all, students and parents have a pre-conceived notion (their dream, which I completely get) of the type or specific college they seek, so many choose higher cost alternatives than they may need.  Knowing the student’s longer-term goal is helpful. Do they want/need a job after college or is grad school an immediate option?
  2. Family Income.   Financial aid is mostly driven by family income – not assets.  Need-based aid is readily available at most colleges — and some of the most selective colleges provide 100% aid for low income, high achieving students.
  3. Savings. How much will likely be saved by the start of freshman year?  Very few families will save 100% but establishing a savings plan early  — and contributing routinely — will make a big difference.
  4. Getting “Free Money.”   Grants and scholarships will help defray college costs.  In addition to federal, state and third-party grants and scholarships, many colleges offer generous Merit Aid to students who help the college fill-out the entering class.  The college may be seeking an actor or thespian or woman/man from a particular geographic area and will offer lots of money to them. Other times gifts from relatives and others help students cover college costs.
  5. Current Income.  Will parents and/or students be able to contribute cash while the student is in-school?

If these sources cover the full-cost of college (tuition, fees, room/board, other projected expenses such as travel), the college is affordable.   If there is a gap, the discussion gets more interesting because loans are now necessary — and this is where parents and students get into trouble.

Part of the problem: the federal government allows schools to include loans as “aid” in Financial Aid Award Letter  — including a Parent PLUS loan that is offered for the full amount of attendance with little  regard for whether the parents can actually afford the loan.  So the college indicates that it is affordable — based on packaging a boat load of loans without regard to a family’s capacity to repay them.  Sometimes, schools will also front-end load grants or scholarships that might not be renewed or available after freshman year.   Again, the college may appear to be affordable, but maybe only for freshman year.   It’s mind-boggling but true.  It’s like walking into a car dealership and getting a “no questions asked” loan to buy a Mercedes.   The dealer will no doubt think:  Enjoy the great drive — until we repossess the car because you can’t afford the loan payments (which, by the way, we knew before you drove away).  Don’t let this happen to your family!

In my world, a college is affordable if — after exhausting 1-5 above — the student or parents need a loan to fill the gap and BEFORE taking a loan consider:

  • Student’s post-college life.   Students needs to avoid the trap of simply taking big loans to attend the school of their dream without first UNEMOTIONALLY and REALISTICALLY thinking about what their goals are after college — how much are they likely to earn per month?  Before signing for the first loan, determine how much debt is likely to be necessary over 4 years and see what the monthly payment will be — for 10 or more years after graduation.  There are a few rules of thumb on this: Don’t borrow more than your first year’s starting salary. Don’t borrow more than 15-20% of your projected monthly disposable income.  If the monthly payments do not line up with projected income, that college doesn’t sound affordable to me.
  • Parent’s life style and retirement plans if they co-sign their students or take parent loans.   If parents take on debt to pay for their child’s education, they’re best advised to understand what it will mean to carry that debt for 10 or more years after graduation, which just may happen to coincide with their planned retirement.   Will the college debt extend the number of years they  have to work or substantially reduce the amount of their available retirement savings?   Do they plan to borrow against retirement savings?   If so, that college doesn’t sound affordable to me.

This may all sound simple. Theoretically it is:  choose a college that is affordable and offers a social scene and academic rigor in line with your student’s abilities and interests. We should also consider how the student can make progress from the challenges they face in college.  Ideally they are given the opportunity to learn from failure after giving their best efforts towards something they are passionate about.  Not everything has to be perfect to make for a great learning experience.  The result will be a happy, empowered college graduate who, like fearless Felix Baumgartner, lands on his feet: with a diploma in hand, a well-paying job, and student loans, if necessary, that are manageable.   And parents who have helped their child successfully navigate this process without putting their retirement or life style in jeopardy.

Let me know if you disagree with this train of thought — and why. Together we can help families grapple with this vexing issue.

 

 

 

 

College worries your customers: Here’s Why & What you can do to help them

When it comes to finances, what do you think are the two biggest areas of concern for adults with children?

Here’s what an April 2015 Gallup poll said:

  • More parents worry about how they are going to pay for college than they do about their own retirement.
  • 73% of those surveyed said they worry more about college than their retirement.
  • Even parents making $100,000 or more are worried.   61% said they were worried about having enough money to pay for their children’s college.

Grandparents are also worried and are helping their grandchildren like never before.  A 2014 Legg Mason study:

  • 2/3 of grandparents whose grandchildren are planning to attend college in the future are chipping in to financially support their education.
  • Nearly 40% contribute to the costs for grandchildren currently in college.

Why is everyone worried?

  1.  They may still have their own student loan debt and are concerned about how to help their children.  In 2013,  seniors age 65 and above totaled $18.2 billion, a 650 percent increase from $2.8 billion in 2005.  On the other end of the spectrum, Fidelity’s 9th Annual Study for College Savings told us that56% of Millennial parents are still paying on student loans.
  2. The sound bites and statistics are scary.  By the end of 2015, student and parent college debt rose to almost $1.3 trillion.  The average debt for students graduating with a bachelor’s degree is $37,000.According to the Brookings Institution, the typical new graduate is likely to devote 14% or more of his or her paycheck to student loans. For those with fine art or therapy degrees, it’s closer to 20%.
  3. The cost of college continues to increase.  According to the College Board, the average cost of a four-year, private college, including room and board has climbed 53% in the past 10 years to $43,921. Many cost over $65,000.  But it is also true that many are priced far below the average. And the sticker price is not what families usually pay.
  4. Parents feel overwhelmed and guilty that they are not doing enough to help their children.  Few feel that they can save enough.  So they do nothing.

Here’s what you can do to help them:

  1. Be the source and conduit for factual information, tools and services to empower families to take action: Here are some important — and often overlooked — points:
    • Saving for college will likely be only one part of the total college financing plan — but is the element that can be acted upon very early in the life of a child.  Saving a little now can have a significant impact later.  Read about how the “Rule of 70” simplifies compound interest for your customer’s needs.
      • 529 College Savings Plans are very effective for  many families:
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        Learn More: Contact Invite Education

        529s are very flexible; provide tax advantaged savings; permit grandparents, parents and others to contribute to to each child’s college savings plan; allow up to five years of gifting up- front and offer penalty-free opportunities to switch beneficiaries.

      • Currently, there are more than 12 million 529 accounts open in the U.S. with over $250 billion — that’s 1/4 of a trillion dollars — saved for college.  So we’re making some good progress in the savings area.
  2. Leverage Invite Education’s platform to provide a value added service to your customers while growing assets under management and cross-selling products to grandparents, parents and students

Invite Education’s College Center is a cloud-based tool that is seamlessly added to your public web site or to select clients who need the most help.  You likely do not have the expertise on staff to update and keep college related information current and fresh.  Invite Education offers a complete planning platform that’s perfect for families managing the college process as early as Pre-K all the way to senior year of high school.

Younger families are guided to a savings plan that is right for them to help families take control of their future plans. Along the way, as the student progresses grade by grade, admissions and testing criteria are highlighted in preparation for the academic competitiveness involved.  As college nears, scholarships and financial aid are highlighted along with cost analysis and comparisons to help finalize school choice.  Finally, after all other funding avenues have been secured, student lending insight is provided to help families make wise decisions about debt.

It’s good business to help your customers — and their children, (aka your future customers!) — with this very critical need.

 

 

 

Let’s help college students land on their feet like Fearless Felix

Meet “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner (“Jump” image from Flickr) – an Australian daredevil. Fearless Felix participated in the Red Bull Stratos Project. He rode a helium balloon into the stratosphere – 24 miles up and should be an inspiration for all of us to ask why all college grads can’t be more like him and land on their feet after their diploma hits their hand.Felix_Baumgartner_2013 Wikipedia

After saying,  “I’m coming home,”   Felix casually leaned forward to begin his descent from the high altitude balloon. And what a descent it was:

  • He was in free fall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
  • Reached a speed of 843.6 miles per hour – that’s Mach 1.25.
  • He caused a sonic boom – by himself – the first person ever to break the sound barrier without the aid of a vehicle.
  • He also came out of a death spiral. The engineers who modeled his free fall realized that at some point he would start spinning out of control, which had to be stopped in order to deploy the parachute on his back. So they taught him how to right himself if this were to happen.

Watch the You Tube videos of this. It’s mesmerizing and was motivational for me.

After:

  • two years of planning,
  • 2 test jumps,
  • many visits to a sports psychologist to overcome his one fear – claustrophobia, and
  • 1 delayed jump due to bad weather

On October 14, 2012, Felix:

  • jumped from 127,852 feet
  • controlled his in-flight wobble that could easily have resulted in his death
  • and proceeded to land on his feet.

A perfect landing. An Olympic gymnast would have been in awe.

So I have to ask you: How is it that we can dedicate that kind of ingenuity to accomplish such an audacious goal, but we can’t seem to find a way to have our college graduates land on their feet: with a degree, a well-paying job and if they need some loans, with a debt burden that is manageable.   It boggles my mind.

We’ll discuss this in more detail in later posts, but here’s a start for families trying to achieve their dreams of a college education for their children.

Parents and students should recognize that colleges are a business with two primary goals  for admitting next year’s class:

  • Maximize net tuition revenue
  • assemble a diverse class that competes favorably against peer institutions, is well-balanced with a talented pool of matriculants, and will make the class, the administration, the faculty and the alumni proud.

Too often families take a “damn the torpedos” approach and borrow whatever they need for “the best” brand name college    Families that resist basing this important decision mostly on emotion and instead act like traditional consumers — in this case of education — have a much better chance of a college graduate who lands on their feet.  Here’s a simple formula for success for families:

  • Be realistic, college is not for everyone.  Is it the student’s dream, or at least strong desire, to attend college?  Is the student properly motivated to be successful or are they fulfilling what they perceive to be someone else’s dream: a parent, guardian or guidance counselor?  Sometimes delaying college of a year or two, or not attending, is a a better choice than starting, only to drop out.
  • Determine what type of school best fits the student’s needs. Cost aside for this moment, a  4 year private college may be the right answer for many, but not all – particularly the very most selective which admit fewer than 10% of the applicants. Community colleges give many students a terrific start.  Public colleges offer excellent learning environments that are the ticket to success for many students.  The key is finding the best academic and social fit for that particular student.
  • Select a school in that spectrum that is affordable.  There is no magic formula for affordability but a one litmus test:  will the student and/or parent be required to take debt in order for the student to attend?  If so, will the student’s potential post-graduate job prospects likely pay enough to repay the debt. Likewise, is parental debt affordable based on income?  Is the parent’s debt burden affecting their retirement savings?
  • Have these conversations early and over time — starting as early as ninth grade with general thoughts and become increasingly concrete as the student’s record of achievement in high school takes shape, test scores come in, college visits are made and the student’s desires sharpen.  The earlier you start and the franker the discussion you can have, the greater opportunity you  will have to manage expectations and provide our son or daughter with practical advice that they will hopefully listen to.

Following these steps will help high school seniors select a school that is right for them academically and financially ,and will substantial increase the odds that they will land on their feet with a degree, a well-paying job, and student loans, if necessary, that are manageable.

John’s Jots #3: Helping H.S. Seniors Pick Their College

Hooray — Finally.  For the first time that they can remember,  most high school seniors (and their families) now have the power in the college selection process.  With college  acceptances having been received and the May deposit deadline looming, the shoe is on the other foot.   Applicants have morphed into accepted students and most colleges are now the ones sweating.  What will their yield numbers and net tuition dollars look like once the Class of 2020 forms?   Seniors are very close to the end of a long journey.  However, as Yogi Berra said: “it ain’t over till it’s over.”  And it ain’t over yet.

Here’s what high school seniors and their families should consider:

  • Which college is the best academic and social fit?  To get to this point, the college made some favorable impression but now it’s time to dig in a little deeper.  This is the time for a revisit, discussion with a current student or a little more research into majors offered, internship opportunities, job placement rates, social activities — is greek life important? — and other areas of student interest.  Can the student visualize her/himself on the campus?
  • Which college is most affordable?  For some, this may be the first and most important question.   No more theory about paying for college, it’s nut cutting time.  In the summer, a tuition bill will arrive.  For some with lots of merit and need based aid, the bill may be small or zero.  For most, the cost of attendance less free money (grants, scholarships and gifts) may leave a gap that needs to be filled.  Take that gap amount and reduce it by the amount of savings that can be used for the first year and any other gifts or projected income to be kicked-in.  Parents may allocate some earnings, while students may contribute from a work-study or a part-time job.  Now that all of the free and earned  money had been exhausted, the college with the smallest remaining gap is arguably the most affordable.   If a gap still exists, you will likely need to borrow from  the federal government or a private credit student loan lender.  Here are a few important tips when it comes to borrowing student loans:
    • Borrow as little as possible.  Whatever is borrowed needs to be repaid with interest.  And remember, college may last 4 or more years.  Think seriously about how much will likely need to be borrowed over the course of the entire college experience, not just the first year.
    • Pick a loan that makes the most sense for your situation.  The federal Direct Loan program is most often, not always, the very best for student borrowers.  There are up-front fees but the interest rates are relatively low and for lower-income borrowers, the government pay the interest while the student is in school.  After graduation — when it’s time to begin repaying the loans, all federal borrowers are eligible for repayment plans that are more favorable than private credit loan plans.  There are also parent loans available from the federal government (PLUS Loans) and from private credit lenders such as banks, credit unions, finance companies, and some colleges and state agencies.
    • Figure out your monthly payment NOW — before you take the loan.  How much will the required monthly payment be once it’s time to start paying?   Repayment usually begins six months after separating, i.e. graduating or leaving the college early.  Does the projected monthly payment (most loans require minimum monthly payment of $50) make sense based on what the  monthly earnings might be?  The Bureau of Labor Statistics and others offer earnings statistics by job and sometimes by major. Look them up.  One rule of thumb is that college loans should not be more than 15-20% of income.   And remember — there may be need to borrow for more than one year.  DO NOT PUT YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND AND THINK THAT EVERYTHING HAS TO WORK OUT FAVORABLY.  BE REALISTIC.  WILL THE POST-GRADUATION JOB PRODUCE ENOUGH INCOME TO PAY-OFF THE DEBT?  No one starts out with the goals of becoming the next headline of the poor student who took a ton of debt and wound up with a low paying job.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow looks like this: a student graduates from college in 4 years having enjoyed a great campus experience with a job offer in hand and manageable debt that will enhance their credit rating as they make repayment.  For a nation that put a man on the moon in less than decade after President Kennedy’s inspiring call to action, the goal of college graduates without mountains of debt does not seem to be much of a reach.

High school seniors should enjoy these heady days of having the power on their side but should use them wisely to set the stage for great success in college.  The decision high school students and families make in the next 20 days may well determine if the promise of their college dreams become reality.  Those who pick an affordable college that offers the best academic and social fit will be on the road to success.