From the May 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

May 1, 2007

New Courses for the College Conversation

A scandal erupts, and new tools to help advisors and their clients

We all know higher education is costly, but it turns out that there may be some hidden costs--and unintended and possibly illegal benefits going to folks involved in college financial aid. Directors of financial aid at Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Southern California apparently held shares in Student Loan Xpress, a student loan company recommended to student borrowers by each university. Because at least two of the individuals made a considerable profit by selling their shares--one more than $100,000-- Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York has begun an investigation into the relationships between student loan companies and universities.

The officers' stake in the company was discovered after five other universities agreed to pay back $3.2 million to students after lenders paid kickbacks to the institutions, based on student loan volume. In response, Cuomo, in conjunction with law makers, has recently introduced legislation to establish restrictions on the relationship between colleges and student loan companies. If passed in New York, the bill would ban lenders from sharing revenue from student loans with colleges and forbid lenders from offering gifts to school officials or placing them on corporate advisory boards in exchange for recommending the companies to students seeking financial aid. Also, officials serving on such boards would be banned from receiving payments for doing so. Attorneys general in California, Ohio, Connecticut, and Minnesota have also begun to investigate relationships between lenders and colleges but have yet to propose legislation.

In other education news, the College Board reports that the average cost for college tuition and fees at four-year public universities has increased nearly 51% over the past 10 years, and the average cost of tuition at these institutions is expected to exceed the $100,000 mark by the year 2016. Presently, with room and board, four-year public colleges average $12,796 for in-state residents. With tuition prices escalating so quickly, advisors ought to have education funding down to a science, aware of all possible options.

The obvious option is a 529 plan, but it's not the only way to go. Some clients may prefer to pay for college out of their income to preserve savings and investments for other estate planning or gifting needs. "Such clients have so many other things that require them to transfer funds that in many cases, if they were to use their annual exclusion for college funding, they can't use them for what they see to be other pressing needs," explains Fred Stubbs, chief administrative officer at Summit Financial Resources, Inc. in Parsippany, New Jersey.

As for client knowledge on these matters, Stubbs says his high-net-worth clients are aware of the options, yet because of their high level of income, they have other objectives, and are more interested in how education funding fits into their overall plans, aided, in Summit's clients' case, by some proprietary planning software.

For advisors without access to such software, resources such as The College Savings Plans Network's newly redesigned Web site, CollegeSavings.org, can be useful. The 529 Classroom explains the components of a 529 plan and its advantages. For those that are already aware of 529 benefits, the site connects to all state-administered plans across the country, and has a database feature that allows users to compare plans by state or specific features, such as fees, maximum contribution, and tax benefits.

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