Alleviating the Stresses of an Expensive College Tuition

By: Claire Bendig, Recent Graduate of Chapman University

Tuition loans can be a cause of student stress, especially with enough interest accrued to require repayment well into the future. Difficult to evade, only determined hard work will eventually pay them off.

As a college graduate myself, we enter a world of endless responsibilities, unsure of what to do. The debt that is carried over from an undergraduate degree is astronomical. education-2385117_1920According to Student Loan Hero, a blog that guides indebted students, “Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. In fact, the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.”

There are ways to alleviate the stresses of an expensive tuition. FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a government form that qualifies students for aid based on their particular financial situation.  The problem for many is the tedious application process. It has more than 100 questions, including inquiries about parents’ assets, taxes and net worth.

In March 2016, a group of seven students went to Washington, D.C., to help pass a bill to streamline the FAFSA process. Patrick McDermott was among those who attended. As a student working with college freshmen in dealing with these issues, he says, “The FAFSA process could be made a lot easier by not only implementing the IRS direct transfer as is done now, but by streamlining the amount of information required in determining the monetary awards.” (The IRS Data Retrieval Tool has since faced security issues, causing it to be shut down for now)

Even though the application can be overwhelming for students to fill out, it is well worth the effort to gain access to guaranteed school funding.

Credit unions can help students with financial debt as well (along with other perks like reduced transaction fees, online banking, debit and low-interest rate credit cards). Organizations such as Credit Union Student Choice lay out credit union options for students and mentor them on how loans work and ways to evade interest penalties. When joining a credit union, if the student has a co-signer, they can get a lower interest rate.

In line with their mission to help others, credit union loans will often allow the co-signer to be without obligations if the student has been consistent with payments for the past 12 months. Toni Jaroszewicz, Detroit Branch Manager of Lake Trust Credit Union says, “We offer credit counseling and work with our young folks to help get them on the right track to pay down debt and implement plans that will lead them to financial success.”

Counseling is the educational foundation that is needed to better understand the expectations of the college graduate, and because of the member-status of account holders, credit unions are willing to provide more financial guidance than they are likely to find at banks. My peers and I have graduation fears because so much is unknown. By expanding practical education, we can enter the professional world more confident in our abilities to succeed.

Claire Bendig is a contributor to the Millennial Voice column for CO-OP Financial Services, a financial technology company for 3,500 credit unions and their 60 million members. She is a recent graduate of Chapman University in Orange, California, with an Emphasis in Creative and Technical Writing.

Student Loan miniseries just in time for for your college plans: #MyCollegeCorner

Students and parents are already gearing up for college payment decisions, so we put together a student loan miniseries on our Youtube Channel to help get the knowledge out there. #MyCollegeCorner features weekly updates, so subscribe to stay on track with your plan.  Today’s episode covers subsidized and unsubsidized loans.  Stay tuned for insight on Parent Plus in upcoming episodes.

Paying for college with early admissions

Have you looked into getting admitted to a preferred school much earlier than standard admissions deadlines?  Then you’re probably considering an “early decision” or “early action” where the student chooses to attend a specific college much earlier than standard admissions deadlines.

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Early Bird admissions and financial aid

Know the difference: Early decision (ED) refers to a binding decision to attend a specific school.  Students taking early decision commit to one specific school as early as the fall semester of senior year, foregoing admission to any other institution.  Early Action (EA) is a non-binding admissions process where students are notified very early of their acceptance but may choose to attend a different school.

Early decision: How’s it paid for? Going forward with an early decision requires organization and a clear path to covering the balance.  Traditionally, the biggest challenge associated with early decision was affordability, since the choice was made without comparing actual financial aid offers from other schools.  Gaining early admission with the means to pay the bill outright regardless of financial aid and scholarships works for some, but not all families. If the financial aid offered with an early decision application is too low, families have the option to appeal the decision and ultimately reject if proven unaffordable.  Going through early decision only to end up not attending is an avoidable stress through realistic college planning, so unless the school is an absolute “must attend” situation, it may not be worth applying this way.  It’s expected that students only submit one early decision application to one school, but may also submit standard applications to other schools by agreeing to withdraw those applications if accepted for the early decision school.  There is a wide gap from early admissions beginning in November to when standard admissions deposits are due in May, so be aware of deadlines to know when a final decision is required.

Early action: What are my options? Early action admissions allow students the benefit of immediately applying to several schools instead of just one.  This allows for families to compare financial aid offers without being bound to just one institution. Early action has become much more common to help students zero in on their final college choice after recognizing all their best options. Early action does require a pro-active approach to make sure each school has all admissions and financial aid information available allowing for clear comparisons between offers.

Financial aid applications are early too: The FAFSA (and CSS Profile) has been available since October 1, 2016 for college students beginning their freshman year in Fall 2017.  This is 3 months earlier than the traditional January 1st FAFSA date, allowing more time for schools to begin sorting through many financial aid requests and early admission applications.  Since this is the first time FAFSA is being made available so early, most schools are still following  regular deadlines like in March, April and May.  But for families handling early admissions, this earlier date hopefully provides more breathing room to compare options.

Merit based vs need based funding: Remember the differences between college funding. Grants are need based financial aid awards provided by federal, state and school programs considering  income and asset information on the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile.  Merit based scholarships are awarded to students considering high test scores, grades, sports, community service and other student qualities and achievements.  When making a final choice about early admissions, make sure the financial aid award letter accounts for both need based and merit based funding eligibility.  You want a complete financial picture when comparing school options, which is why all your financial aid documentation needs to be filed as early as possible.

 

October 1 FAFSA: Getting ahead on college funding

For the first time, the FAFSA will be available beginning October 1.  This is a big move from the traditional January 1st date for FAFSA availability, and will change the timeline for financial aid processing with implications for admissions.  If you’re planning college admissions in Fall 2017, it’s already time to get started!

Prior-Prior Year Taxes (PPY): A move that will help streamline the process is the use of Prior-Prior Year Taxes to complete family financial information on the FAFSA. The 2017-2018 FAFSA will require info from the 2015 year tax returns.  Those returns have long since been completed by most families, and may be available for digital transfer from the IRS via their Data Retrieval Tool.  This means the financial details of your tax return can automatically populate the FAFSA, saving you time from data entry.  Also, using Prior-Prior Year taxes negates the need to make estimations on the FAFSA when tax returns were incomplete.  In the past, when FAFSA filers were required to use only the Prior year tax returns, they were encouraged to file the FAFSA on January 1st, before their actual tax returns were completed.  Now that tax returns from the Prior-Prior year are used, there’s no need to estimate.

Expect similar admissions deadlines: Most colleges are maintaining their same admissions deadlines. May 1 will still be the major deadline for enrollment decisions.  Early Decisions will be the exception from school to school.  The big impact early FAFSA makes is that there will be more time for schools to process new incoming financial information, and families can get a better idea of their financial aid eligibility earlier in the process.

Pay attention to institutional funding deadlines:  Institutional funding is money reserved by the college and awarded based on their own internal criteria and methodology.  Eligibility requirements and deadlines can vary from school to school.  Make sure to identify any deadlines for institutional funding to stay ahead of the curve. The simplest way to achieve this is by making sure all financial aid forms are completed and submitted in advance of any deadlines.

Remember the CSS profile:  The FAFSA obviously gets a lot of attention, but the CSS / Financial Aid Profile is also required for about 400 select colleges when applying for financial aid.  It goes more in depth than the FAFSA and is also available beginning October 1.

Dealing with uncertainty on the state level: Many states provide need based grant programs to students with low income based on data provided on the FAFSA.  While the federal FAFSA is available beginning October 1, not every state will have their grant budgets for the 2017-2018 years ready yet.  Be aware of any financial aid awards relying on estimates for state based funding as they may be subject to change based on final state budget legislature.

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

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:

 

How do I save for retirement AND college?

Finding balance between retirement savings and college savings represents a challenge most families need help managing. If you feel overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Consider some eye-opening statistics from Roger Michaud’s recent article “Financing Education is a Retirement Issue “

  • When it comes to financing a college education, 21% of parents would delay their retirement and 23% would withdraw money from their retirement account to help fund college
  • 94% of parents believe college savings will impact their ability to save for retirement
  • 56% of parents with children in the home are currently saving for retirement

The struggle is real, especially when parents would actually withdraw from their retirement savings to help fund college. Early withdrawals face taxes plus potentially a 10% early withdrawal penalty making it less of a financial plan and more of a knee-jerk reaction.

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Find Your Balance

Why? Let’s consider the circumstances. Retirement is most often cited as a goal for long-term savings, but the rise in college costs has emerged as a financial challenge as well. Retirement planning extends beyond the typical 18 years leading up to college attendance, and parents may have started saving for retirement before they got married and had kids, giving them a head-start. This creates a false sense of security where a parent may simply feel comfortable pulling money for retirement to help fund their child’s college dreams, but this is unsustainable. Here’s how families successfully manage both.

Start with retirement savings: Securing your long-term financial goals puts you in best position to help your children over time without unnecessary financial sacrifice. Every dollar counts, and the tax benefits provided by Traditional and Roth IRA’s, 401(k) and 403(b) really help long term savers. While you cannot predict the future of your child’s academic plans, you do know and understand your own future financial needs better than anyone else. Once you’ve mastered your retirement plan you can more confidently pivot the remaining income towards college savings.

Play the long game with college savings: Take a big picture perspective, developing your patience and putting value on consistency. This is a relaxing exercise far removed from an overly busy day-to-day life, so enjoy it and you’ll thank yourself many years down the road. Stay motivated by reviewing savings progress as consistently as you would review your child’s report cards every semester / quarter. You’ll notice that as the savings grow, your child’s academic progress will help you zero in on admissions criteria for various colleges, further motivating you to stay the course. Maintain active engagement by using simple online tools like Invite Education’s Passport for Success that outlines college savings and academic planning all on one platform.

Enfranchise your child: Help your child develop their role as an active saver for college. During the key early years, its expected parents and perhaps relatives will make the lion’s share of deposits in college savings accounts. Once the child begins some part time work, have a portion of those earnings added to the college savings account to help them get involved. This helps develop an all-important habit of saving, a key lesson often overlooked but sorely needed for financial literacy education.

Forecast Financial Aid: Savings are accounted for as part of financial aid eligibility calculations, but the way the money is saved makes an impact. For example, cash in a checking account in the student’s name can weigh against financial aid eligibility by as much as 20% of full value on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid! There’s a better way. If you’re worried about financial aid eligibility, just remember;

  • It’s cheaper to save long term than to borrow and pay back loans later
  • On the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) money saved in a 529 plan owned by the parent is weighed against financial aid eligibility at 5.64% of full value, a great reduction from cash found in a checking account.

In other words, college savers are not punished for their efforts. It’s the income from work declared on the FAFSA that can reduce financial aid eligibility more dramatically. Always use a financial aid estimator to forecast and plan ahead, but you may quickly determine that your income would remove eligibility for Pell or State based grants. This reinforces the need for college savings with an early start date to allow greater time to compound, putting your family in better position to handle college expenses as they arrive. This is especially important for families considered “middle class” as they may have just enough income to reduce financial aid eligibility, but lack the actual cash to pay college outright. A dedicated college savings strategy is critical in such cases.

Early college savings strategies for children

Parents are inspiring their kids to learn financial literacy with a simple message: save for college! It’s a worthwhile goal helping to build healthy financial habits for life and also to reduce the need for student loans in the future. Here are some ways that parents can help their children get on the right track early and stay the course.

  • Learn by doing: The number one way for students to begin saving early for college is to actually do it. The very act of taking money and putting it into a specific account for college savings is instrumental, not just for growing education funds but also learning a healthy financial habit for life. For early savers, it’s simply a matter of motivation.
  • Encourage financial literacy: Embrace financial literacy and learn about money: how to save it, how to spend it, and how to make it work for you. Even with digital money and payment platforms becoming more common, parents can begin to encourage their children to understand financial literacy by explaining about the different coins and dollar bills, and help them put money into a piggy bank or a savings account. As they mature, you might begin talking to older children about investments and different kinds of savings. The key is to have open conversation about personal finance, so that kids learn early that money is something to be managed properly. If that didn’t happen for you, it’s never too late to learn.
  • Learn to budget: This is a great exercise for students and parents. Take a week or two to record all of your purchases and see how much you spend. Record all of your income. Categorize your expenses and determine how much of your income can go into savings. Though “expenses” may be limited, kids should get into the habit of doing this so they can manage a personal budget as they mature. The 50/30/20 method of budgeting suggests breaking things into percentages in the categories of fixed costs, financial goals and flexible spending, but there are many ways to do this.
  • Put a percentage of gifts away: Gifts from birthdays and other holidays are great opportunities to boost college savings accounts. The trick is allocating it to savings before it is spent! Put a percentage of each gift into that account and watch the money grow. One of the most fundamental aspects of starting early is that thanks to interest, your money will be worth more years down the line when you need it.
  • Getting a job: The best way to increase income is to make money on a regular basis through work. A student’s first priority, especially in high school, needs to be their education, but flexible jobs give you the opportunity to earn money of your own. Babysitting is a great job for high schoolers, because it’s flexible and families often need babysitters on the weekends. When the kids go to bed, you often can do homework, accomplishing two things in one go. Other jobs that have weekend shifts include being a cashier at a grocery store or convenience store, working in a bakery, working as a golf caddy, or serving in a restaurant. Students with an entrepreneurial streak might start their own dog walking business or make things to sell.
  • Be consistent: Having a good plan in place is important, but what’s more important is putting that plan into action. If you plan to save $100 a month, continue to do that. It’s important to stick with it until it becomes second nature. You’ll be grateful that you did when you approach college and have a sizable savings account to help pay for it.
  • Parents and children work together: Financial literacy brings families together with a shared goal of greater prosperity. Parents can help set up the paperwork for a college savings plan while their children follow through with their consistent plan to earn and save money.  
  • Keep parents or grandparents as 529 account holders: Make sure to maximize savings in relation to potential financial aid eligibility by making the parent (or even grandparent) the account holder of 529 savings. It turns out that savings in a student’s name can reduce financial aid eligibility, by increasing the family’s “Expected Family Contribution” Money in a child’s name (like in checking/savings accounts) is counted as a student asset on the FAFSA, with as much as 20% of it’s value weighed against financial aid eligibility. This presents an unfortunate situation when it comes to college savings and financial literacy; you want your child to learn about saving money, but you also want to get the best value for college savings. There are significant benefits to keeping the majority of college savings in the parent’s name. A 529 in the parent’s name counts as a parent asset, and is assesses 5.6% of its value against FAFSA eligibility, a lower rate than a student asset. This comes into play during the need analysis process, which shelters parents’ assets more than it does those of their children. There are a number of strategies that you can use to maximize your aid eligibility. For students who are saving for college, it could be helpful to have them save the money but put it into this account under the parent’s name. That way, you are maximizing the potential for aid.

The idea of getting students to start saving for college early isn’t just about growing their contribution to their education savings, though that’s important. It’s also about children learning to manage their money and starting off strong so that they can grow up to be independent adults. It’s important because having them pay for a portion of their college costs gives them more ownership over the process because they’re investing their own money. Financial literacy is a skill for life; by starting young, children are are set up for financial success early.

 

3 Key Points for Grandparents Funding 529 College Savings Plans

It’s wonderful to see so many Grandparents participate in college graduation ceremonies, cheering on their grandchildren!  It turns out many grandparents were also able to provide some financial support along the way which minimized their old time photosgrandchildren’s student loan debt.  If you are a grandparent (Or soon to be one) here are a few things to consider when planning to help with college costs using a 529 plan.

  1. Early savings is key: Most grandparents understand the value and importance of savings and compound interest and the resultant benefit to them and their family members of a patient and disciplined strategy.  Saving for college is a great example, since it takes patience to stick with a  college savings plan for young toddlers and children. Grandparents are already well aware that “time flies” all too fast and what is required when making a long term commitment to a financial goal.   By helping to start a college savings plan, grandparents can make a big difference for long term college savings, increasing college options and minimize student debt for their grandchildren.
  2. Utilize the special 5 year 529 gifting rule for estate planning purposes: Grandparents should consider utilizing their estate plans to kickstart college savings.  Up to $14,000/year in 529 contributions can be made without triggering any gift taxes, considering the annual gift exclusion rule from the IRS. Under the special 5 year accelerating gifting rule, grandparents can gift as much as $70,000 contribution to a particular 529 plan beneficiary in a single year, but this would require no subsequent gifts over the next 5 years in order to average out a $70,000 lump sum within the $14,000 guideline.  Utilizing this rule and infusing a large amount now would certainly make a huge difference in the amount available in the future for college tuition.
  3. Be aware of financial aid policy; Use 529 accounts in junior and senior year of college:  Grandparent assets are not directly disclosed on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) since they are not the custodial parents or the student, obviously.  However, when 529 funding distributions are provided to the student, the money is treated as “income” in the student’s name for financial aid purposes in the year it was received.  This additional income may actually decrease financial aid eligibility for the student as it is weighed even more heavily against need based grants, even more so than income in the parent’s name!  Wise planners simply look ahead and determine if the student would qualify for need- based funding considering the custodial parent’s household income (Like using Invite Education’s financial calculators).  If drawing high disbursements from the 529 accounts would sacrifice financial aid eligibility, then hold off on disbursements until the student’s junior and senior years.  This way the student can qualify for maximum need based financial aid for the early years, and then use the 529 to fund perhaps the entire cost of their last two years of college.  Or the 529 funding could be used to pay for Graduate school, where need based grants are not awarded on the scale of undergraduates. If there is excess funds, the grandparents can change the beneficiary or even take the money back .  No one wants to be punished for savings, so always go back and re-evaluate the funding strategy each year for optimization.