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

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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

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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:
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    …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

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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

What to look for on a college visit

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Visiting colleges is fun, but with all the excitement, it’s easy to miss some important lasting details that can make (or break) a campus experience.

Know the costs before you go: Make comparing campuses easy by knowing the tuition, room, board and expenses before the visit. This way you can enjoy the experience while being practical about the value provided and how it can be paid for.

Try the food: Meal plans have a variety of options to match student needs and schedule.  Stop by the cafeteria or other food vendors on campus to look for….

  • Quality: Is the food worth the cost of the meal plan?  Is there enough fresh food available to keep students healthy and energized?
  • Access: Where is the cafeteria and what’s the time schedule?  Are there multiple food locations open at different hours serving different food?

Talk to the students:  Ask about their experience and why they chose the school.  What do they like best, or are there some things they want to see improved?  Hearing it directly from current students can provide great insight to make a decision.

What’s the campus like? A campus can change rapidly depending on the day of the week. Big events and sports will take over space, especially during football season.  Other schools may be very busy during the week and very quiet on weekends.  Compare schools considering their percentage of resident and commuter students to recognize differences in campus life.

Class drop-ins: If possible, stop into a class room to listen and learn.  Be on the look out for teachers in majors you are interested in.  Ask questions about their respective programs and gauge your own interest in pursuing more knowledge.  How would you handle class in this environment?

Facilities: A campus is made up of many buildings and locations. Gyms, class rooms, labs and parking are just some of the things in plain view, but while on tour look for details like how spacious or crowded it was and the ability to navigate between buildings.  Ideally, you are looking for very safe, clean and well managed locations.  Most importantly, how’s the internet connection?

John Hupalo on college planning solutions with “The Opening Bell” WGN Chicago

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Families putting together college plans are looking at different avenues to find success.  John joined The Opening Bell to share some insight from the book “Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams“, helping families get through the planning process.

  • Starting early on savings will reduce the need to borrow in the future.  There’s 529 programs in place with creative ways to hit savings goals over time. Consistent long term savings combined with any gifts can really grow.
  • College value is different for every family. Be realistic, rather than pessimistic or optimistic.  The planning process has many little steps involved to determine the right fit school considering everything going on in a young person’s life.
  • During election season, we hear ideas about “free” college and student loan debt forgiveness being made more widely available.  At the end of the day, college choices come down to individual decisions based on personal goals and needs. Real solutions are not easily found through claims made during elections.

Check out the full recording beginning @ 19:43 on WGNRadio.com

 

How financial literacy helps with college affordability

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There’s no doubt that college is expensive.  Just ask any parent helping their son or daughter enroll this fall, or even file the FAFSA in preparation for next year.  College affordability is at the heart of the issue, but real potential solutions to the problem can be swept away under the daily sound bytes generated during this aggressive political season.  But politics aside, there is no easy fix for college affordability regardless of voter preference, leaving families to decide on their own how to navigate.  Let’s consider how financial literacy helps manage decisions about college affordability.

“It’s cheaper to save than to borrow”: Parents that recently started a family, and even more recently paid off their student loans are very debt conscious, perhaps spurring the trend of greater college savings.  The “How America Saves for College 2016” report from Sallie Mae shows that a full 57% of families are now saving for college, a 9% swing in just the past year.  screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-9-54-01-amIn particular, it’s millennial parents taking the lead on goal setting and developing a plan to pay for college, all hallmarks of financial literacy teachings.  It’s inferred from these findings that new parents recognize the importance of education, but are wary of student loans.  While Washington needs to work out the student loan mess, families are taking control of their savings plans to make a smarter and more affordable investment in higher education.

Using college financial calculators: It’s easier now than ever to make and compare estimates on college costs, student loan repayment and savings, helping families look at the big picture first.  Before zeroing in on a college choice, it’s wise to take a look at a wide variety of options for perspective.  Consider questions like potential financial aid eligibility versus the sticker price of select schools, or if the lowest priced option is really the best fit.  These questions are simplified with use of financial calculators as reasonable comparisons are grounded in logic, ensuring informed decisions on college choice.

Power of compound interest: Long term savers know one big secret. Over time their money can grow with the power of compound interest.  Financial literacy helps families harness the power of compound interest through simple knowledge, like demonstrated with the “Rule of 70”, to show how money can double over time.  While financial calculators help with the details, the impetus behind saving begins with the motivation to start early, rather than later, to make college more affordable.

Identify college value: Know thyself! If financial literacy can teach us one thing, it’s that everyone needs to make their own choices based on their own needs.  Financial literacy helps with perspective on this issue, recognizing that college value really depends on individual factors managed on the personal level.  When weighing the many variables, from majors, school reputation, and internships and compare them to facts like costs, student loan debt and out-of-pocket expenses a pattern is revealed.  Some colleges will be too expensive while others may be a bargain relative to the needs of the student.  Using practical teachings from financial literacy promotes sound decisioning through the process to make the college experience an affordable one.

Invite Education co-founder Peter Mazareas talking college affordability on Plan Stronger Radio

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Peter Mazareas joined Plan Stronger Radio with host David Holland to cover the topic of college affordability, a major issue faced by many families, especially this time of year.

Peter covers some critical topics by sharing his wisdom and expertise, especially important for families approaching this challenge:

  • College planning is recognized equally with retirement planning given the size and scope of the process.
  • How can families simplify college planning given all the financial variables?
  • What can be done to increase college options and reduce debt dependency?
  • What are some smart strategies that can help with college savings?
  • How the new book “Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams” helps families every step of the way from early planning to graduation.

Three Simple Ideas to Start Fixing the Student Loan Mess

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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

Invite Education Featured on “Money Matters” @KPFTHouston

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It’s “Back-to-school” season and parents are looking for answers when dealing with the high cost of college.  Join Chris Insley of the “Money Matters” show on @KPFTHouston interviewing Invite Education CEO John Hupalo to discuss the new book Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams.  Early savings strategies, student lending, choosing a major, considering career opportunities and other key topics are up for discussion and solutions.

Interview: Invite Education CEO John Hupalo on @KDURradio: “Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams”

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Rachel Frederico host of “Off the Rim” at Fort Lewis College Community Radio (@KDURradio) interviewed John Hupalo on the topic of college costs, savings and student loans, providing insight from the new book “Plan and Finance Your Family’s College Dreams.” The interview covers many topics including:

  • How college financing is a holistic planning process covering the years of early childhood leading up to high school graduation.
  • Why 529’s are so advantageous.
  • Translating the “lingo” of the college funding process into plain english.
  • What is a Gap Year and why it matters before college?
  • How can students and parents best manage college loans?

Check out the full recording: