Franklin First Federal Credit Union launches college planning center with Invite Education

Press release from CUInsight:

GREENFIELD, MA (July 19, 2017) — Franklin First Federal Credit Union (FFFCU) has announced a partnership with Invite Education to offer a free comprehensive, life-cycle college planning website. FFFCU’s College Planning Center, powered by Invite Education, is available to anyone, FFFCU members or non-members, who would like better information, tools, and services to more effectively plan and pay for college. FFFCU is the first Credit Union to partner with Invite Education.

“Planning and paying for higher education can be a daunting task for families. Our hope in partnering with Invite Education is to make this process less stressful by helping families answer critical questions such as ‘How do I save for my children’s education?’ ‘Can my child get in to their dream school?’ and ‘Can we afford it?’” said Franklin First CEO/President Michelle Dwyer. “We look forward to helping all families in the community make the college planning process more positive and rewarding with our new College Planning Center.”

Jeff Bentley, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Invite Education added: “Invite Education is thrilled to have a strategic partner such as Franklin First, which is a visionary thought leader in offering a College Planning Center to clarify the college process for its members.”

The FFFCU/Invite Education College Planning Center is a robust platform with an intuitive design that empowers families to manage the entire college planning process from birth through high school. The website offers:

  • Age-appropriate guidance to empower families with detailed information on preparing, financing, and successfully applying to college
  • Easy-to-understand explanations to help parents evaluate options: savings, scholarships, financial aid, and loans
  • Comprehensive calculators and college and scholarship search engines
  • Resource Center with college planning resources and FFFCU endorsed products/services
  • Calendar that integrates relevant testing dates, college and scholarship deadlines, and family specific events

Those interested can access the FFFCU College Planning Center at https://franklinfirst.inviteeducation.com/. For more information, call Franklin First Federal Credit Union at (413) 774-6700.


About Franklin First Federal Credit Union

Franklin First Federal Credit Union began in 1958 at Franklin County Public Hospital. In the 1980’s there were mergers of four Franklin County credit unions: Franklin County Public Hospital FCU, Franklin County Teachers FCU, Lunt Silversmiths CU, and Greenfield Tap & Die Credit Union. Anyone who lives, works, attends school or worships in Franklin County can join Franklin First. They currently serve over 7,000 members and over 250 Business Group Partners at their branch at 57 Newton Street in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

About Invite Education

Founded in 2012, Invite Education demystifies the process of planning and paying for college by providing a comprehensive suite of information, tools and services for families. Offering an online custom College Planning Center, a weekly podcast called My College Corner, a blog and a book, they partner with organizations to provide this valuable information to their employees, members and customers.

Contacts

Michelle Dwyer
Franklin First Federal Credit Union
(413) 774-6700

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.

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?

______________________________________________________________

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

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

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?

 

_________________________________________________________________

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

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.

3 Tips for Smart Student Borrowing

When it comes to paying for college, the process can seem overwhelming. There are so many financing options out there and you might be feeling lost about how to choose the correct ones for your family. The key is to equip yourself with information so that you can have knowledge you need to make an informed decision.

One of the most common ways to pay for college is student loans. There are two primary sources of student loan funding: federal loans and private credit loans. The two programs differ in fundamental ways: the money for federal loans comes from the Department of Education whereas private loans come from places like banks, credit unions and other financial institutions.  Federal loans are much more standardized providing the same rates and fees to all borrowers. Most students tend to take advantage of federal loans before moving onto private loans if they still need extra money.

For some families, private loans are a good option because offer competitive rates and a cosigner option to help student-borrowers gain approval. Other families will choose federal loans, which can be easier to get and offer flexible repayment options, like income-based repayment.  Whichever type of loan you choose (and some families take out both private and federal loans), there are a few ways to borrow smart.

Don’t borrow more than you need. Many families get caught up in the availability of what may seem like free money and end up taking out a bigger loan than they need, just because the option is there. But a loan is not free money, even though it is labeled as “financial aid” on a student’s award letter. Every cent you borrow has to be paid back in the future, and often with interest, which can sometimes be up to a few thousand dollars on top of the loan principal. Don’t take out too much money from a student loan; it should be used for education costs only. Take a careful look at actual expenses and remember that interest will accrue on the total balance. You can use a Student Loan Payment Amount Estimator to get an idea of what your payments might look like once you’ve graduated. Be smart about the debt you’re taking on. Only borrow the amount you actually need, otherwise you could be quite literally paying for your mistake down the line.

Review federal loans first. They tend to have the most favorable terms and flexible repayment options, and you generally don’t need a co-signer. To receive federal loans, families must submit the FAFSA form, with the 2016 – 2017 version available beginning October 1. Even if you don’t think your family will qualify for need-based aid, you should submit the FAFSA anyway. Every family that files one, regardless of family income level, is eligible for some type of federal student loan. You never know what you might be eligible for or how your family’s needs will change before the fall. There are different types of Federal Direct Student Loans, including Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Federal Direct PLUS, among others. We will cover the specific differences between these loans in an upcoming post, but all of them are managed by the federal government. Some can be covered by debt forgiveness programs, like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, but when you’re taking out a loan it’s best practice to assume that you will be paying back the entirety of the balance.

If you need more money, look into private loans. Federal loans are limited year-to-year, and if facing a tuition shortfall, you may need to look into private education loans. One of the best known private loan lenders is the company Sallie Mae, but private loans also come from banks, credit unions, and other lenders. In most cases you’ll need a co-signer. All private loans differ, but their interest rates may be fixed or variable and some require a minimum payment while still enrolled in school. You can learn more about the differences between the two types of loans at Studentaid.ed.gov.

When taking out loans, make sure you understand the terms of the loan. How will interest be charged? What is the grace period on the loan, that is, how much time will pass between graduation and when payments are due? Who will be the co-signer on the loan, if you need one? There are many factors to consider and like most aspects of the college process, the answers will differ among families. But with some research, you’ll feel more equipped to make the right choices for you. Good student loan borrowing is about being smart, making the right decisions, and doing what’s best for you and your family.

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.

 

 

 

 

Top 5 reasons for 529

April is #FinancialLiteracyMonth offering many reminders about the importance of saving. Thinking about starting a 529? Here’s 5 reasons why the 529 makes an excellent option.

1. It’s cheaper to save than to borrow:  It’s much more than “a dollar saved is a dollar earned” today, as many utilize student loans to cover the rising cost of higher education.  Having to borrow becomes a much more costly endeavor long term, where savings is a more attractive option.  For example, saving $100 per month averaging 4% rate of return compounded annually over 18 years would produce about $31,437.  If borrowing $31,437 at 4%, a 10-year repayment schedule would require monthly payments of $318.28 for a total of $38,194.24 repaid.  The $6,757.24 in interest costs may be a tax deduction in future years of repayment, but it’s clear that a little bit of early savings goes a long way to cover college costs.

2. No income limitations: Regardless of how low or high family income is, there are no income limitations associated with the 529 plan.  This is unlike the Roth IRA, a retirement savings program that is only available for single people making less than $116,000 per year or married couples earning less than $183,000 per year as of 2015.  Savers make saving a financial priority and are not limited by the 529 because of future gains on income.

3. Tax-free growth: Quite simply, 529’s offer a tremendous benefit of tax free growth.  Specifically, all earnings grow free from federal taxes.  Most states conform to the federal tax free treatment with 33 offering state tax deductions

4. Best savings option when considering financial aid: Families concerned their savings may affect their eligibility for need-based financial aid should take a look at the 529.  Ultimately, the way cash is saved is what’s most important. 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%. For example, $10,000 saved in a 529 could end up reducing financial aid eligibility by $564.  However, this is much better than having money in a standard savings account in the student’s name, where it can be weighed against financial aid eligibility by 20%. The 529 provides a superior vehicle for college savings given financial aid regulations for higher education.

5. Great for estate planning: Grandparents are finding creative ways to help fund college for their grandkids while retaining control of their assets as part of their estate.  Money put into a 529 is removed from the taxable estate, but grandparents are able to retain rights of control over the 529 account even when funding is typically used to cover future college expenses for their grandchildren.   Generally, the goal of estate planning is to reduce tax liabilities and provide assets to family members as efficiently as possible.  Under current tax law, you are permitted to gift up to $14,000 per year to another person for any reason without having to pay a gift tax or a generation-skipping tax (GST). This limit is sometimes referred to as the “annual exclusion amount.” With a 529 Plan, however, you are able to make a lump-sum contribution equal to five years of annual exclusion gifts to a beneficiary in a single year. This means that you can give up to $70,000 (if you are single) or $140,000 (as a married couple) at once, per beneficiary, without having to pay gift or estate taxes.

Learn more about Invite Education’s 529 search engine and college savings calculator, helping your institution provide families with savings strategies and grade-by-grade guidance every step of the way.

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