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A Strategy for Affording College

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Faced with massive budget deficits, state legislators across the country are looking to chop college education funding to fill the gaps. The federal government will likely trim back aid as well. So, students and their families will have to start shouldering more of the costs themselves.

The above is likely high on your clients’ list of worries. Fortunately, college is still one of the smartest investments clients can make for their kids. This article identifies actions you can advise clients to take to put them on the right path.

Get an Early Start

Assuming tuition increases only by 5% per year in the future (that is, only about 2% faster than inflation), parents of a baby born today would have to save $385 each month in order to afford housing and tuition at the average state school. Putting off saving until age 5 bumps the value to $465. The required monthly amount grows to $780 if you don’t start saving until your kid is in middle school. These amounts are averages for public schools. Do you want to send Johnny to Yale? Then plan on putting $1,100 a month away starting the day you bring him back from the hospital. In other words, saving early and often is your best strategy for success.

Set Up a 529 Plan

These calculations assume a return on investments equal to 6% for each year before your child actually heads to college. Most people will earn much less than that amount if they save in a bank account. Fortunately, the government encourages saving for college with various tax-preferred college savings programs. Just a few years ago, there was an ongoing debate about the best program choice. However, recent changes in legislation have made for a fairly clear winner for the vast majority of households: the 529 plan.

One neat feature about a 529 plan is that you are not required to use it in your own state to receive the federal tax benefits. Evaluations of which 529 plan to use can be aided by using a website such as At Veritat Advisors, the firm I co-founded, we often recommend the Iowa 529 plan for many of our clients because of its small minimum required investment, low fees and good user experience. Some non-Iowa residents will forfeit the tax deduction against their own state income taxes; some other states, though, will still allow the deduction. But even if your state does not, your own state’s 529 plan might not be the best option if it has high fees.

Veritat’s own calculations reveal that a 529 plan with a low expense ratio will often more-than-offset a state tax savings for many households. So, be mindful of expenses as well as taxes.

After choosing a 529 plan, clients should follow a regular savings schedule. There are many online calculators to help them determine how much they need to save. However, some caution is in order. Besides making simple assumptions, these calculators fail to balance out your other life’s priorities, such as paying down debt, getting a house, affording retirement, and, oh, paying for your kid’s braces before he or she actually goes to college. That’s one reason why good financial advisors believe in comprehensive planning: You need to have a game plan that realistically balances your different life objectives since you cannot save for everything. Financial planning is not simply about figuring out how much to save and where to invest. It’s first about reflecting about what you really want to accomplish in life.

Moreover, clients need to invest their 529 savings wisely. They should not be seduced by larger projected returns — they come with more risk. Instead, suggest a “safety first” approach and make sure that the risk level of investments matches clients’ willingness to potentially fall short of their intended goal. Investment risk should also weigh clients’ future capacity to earn and save money in case things do go wrong.

Many 529 plans offer investment options that become more conservative automatically as college approaches. While these target-date funds seem simple enough, they are often still very risky, and some 529 plans indeed suffered large losses in 2008. Even if clients are in one of these funds, their investments should be revisited regularly.

Maximize Assistance

Despite the recent increase in average tuition and fees, the good news is that grants (“financial aid”) and federal tax benefits have grown fast enough during recent years to more-than-offset the higher costs for most families. The federal government alone subsidizes higher education to the tune of $200 billion per year. Although much less common, students who decide to work for the Peace Corps or other designated public or private organizations can also qualify for debt relief or even full forgiveness.

However, the bad news is that the government’s generosity, at both the federal and state levels, going forward is in serious decline in light of enormous budget deficits. Clients need to consider taking the following measures:

Pay off credit cards and mortgages. When determining financial aid, schools look at assets, not net worth (assets minus debt). So, if clients have some extra cash sitting around, then paying debt reduces their assets but not their net worth, making them better positioned to receive financial aid.

Avoid taking retirement distributions. Retirement assets are not counted when determining financial aid, so it’s desirable to keep money in retirement accounts as long as possible. Clients should only take the required minimum distributions when they have to do so. Fortunately, RMDs can be deferred until age 70.5, so that’s an unlikely concern for most parents.

Play the intergenerational trading game. In general, a student’s assets and income are penalized more heavily in financial aid calculations than the parents’ resources. The grandparents’ stuff is ignored altogether. So, clients should spend the student’s resources before their own. Moreover, while a 529 plan is counted as an asset for determining financial aid, it counts much less if it is held by the parent. Even better, have the child’s grandparents hold it so that it does not count at all.

Of course, if clients are really funding the grandparents’ 529 plan, then they have to limit annual contributions to avoid producing a gift tax, but that’s pretty easy to do.

Snag a Loan

If a clients’ savings by the start of classes fall short, they may have to make up the difference with loans. And, they wouldn’t be alone. The average student debt has increased over the past decade to almost $25,000. Many students are currently paying a fixed annual interest rate of 6.8% for federal Stafford loans, while some parents are paying 8.5% on PLUS loans. Those rates are pretty high, but, unlike credit card debt, interest on education loans is typically tax-deductible, thereby reducing the true comparable interest rate.

Shop for a Better Price

Another option is to shop for a better price. Although Penn, where I am a professor, ranks high in national rankings, other schools, like Emory in Atlanta or Case Western Reserve in Ohio, might actually be better values when you compare future projected salaries versus the cost of the degree. This principle is fairly general. A child is better off going to a large state school, enrolling in the honors program, and working his or her “tail off” than being average at a top private school. Of course, clients should not rule out applying to the top private schools if their kid happens to be a “smarty pants.” Many schools, like Harvard, Princeton and Penn, now offer free tuition to promising students.

Another option is to do the first two years at a local community college and then transfer to a regular four-year college. The average two-year program costs only $2,713 per year. To be sure, community colleges have garnered a bad rap in the past. Indeed, some academic studies have shown that students who start down this path typically don’t command as large of a future salary as those who start in a regular four-year college. However, these studies are often biased by “sample selection,” that is, the likelihood of lower-performing students to select a community college in the first place. In other words, they would have earned a lower income even if they had attended a regular four-year program from the get-go. Indeed, students who start in community colleges are generally 15% less likely to eventually graduate, and so they might be a different crowd altogether.

While the academic debate over community colleges continues, probably the best advice is for clients to give a community college serious consideration if they live in a state like California where community colleges are widely accepted as entry points into four-year college programs. However, starting at a community college in a state like Florida is a bit riskier, since the standards and norms are different, making it harder to transfer to a four-year program in order to have a strong finish.

So, clients must do their homework when selecting a community college. They should start backward by first picking the eventual intended four-year college (and a backup college if the desired four-year college is highly selective) and find out which courses from the community college will successfully transfer for credit. Then, make sure their kid actually works hard in community college, which can sometimes be a challenge if he or she is still close to home and around his or her friends. Community college is not break time.

Deploy “Kid Share”

Parents should not feel guilty: their child can help pay for his or her own college education. And, yes, consistent with conventional wisdom, it is also true that kids are more likely to value their education if they know that they will need future earnings to pay off loans.

Clients who want to pay part of the schooling can consider creating an incentive schedule based on grades. One tempting approach — to be avoided — is to loan kids the money and claim that they will owe the parents less back if they get good grades. This approach is not credible over time, even if written on paper. If a kid underperforms and can’t find a good job, parents will be out the money — and are not really going to report their own child to a credit bureau.

So, instead of giving him or her a personal loan, parents should pay for some of the tuition when it is actually due and have junior take out a student loan for the remainder, so that an official third-party is involved. Then, maybe increase your tuition subsidy over time with better grades. Plus, clients always have the option to help pay back the student loans later on if they decide their kid is pursuing an honorable profession like relief work in South Sudan.

However, parents should try to resist manipulating their child too much when it comes to choice of degree. Paying for that engineering degree could really backfire and build a mountain of debt if the child eventually drops out anyway. A parent could also end up with a kid who resents them and ends up rejecting all of their good wisdom. Of course, it’s also bad to loosen your standards too much: Too many gym-like classes on the schedule might require a thoughtful parental conversation. Some balance is most reasonable.

For Some: Plan B

Finally, another option — call it Plan B — is for clients to withdraw monies from their tax-deferred retirement accounts when college time arrives. Unless it is a Roth-based plan where they paid the taxes upfront, they will have to pay income taxes on the money. But, they can avoid the usual additional 10% “early withdrawal penalty” if the monies are used for higher-education expenses. Moreover, retirement accounts are not counted by colleges when, for financial aid calculations, they estimate one’s ability to pay. So, it sounds tempting to view retirement accounts as playing double duty, right? It looks even more appealing if you convince yourself that you will eventually pay yourself back before reaching retirement.

However, clients who do this are playing with fire in two ways. First, the payback rarely happens in practice. Second, unlike most 529 plans, retirement accounts have fairly restrictive limits on how much one can contribute each year, thereby limiting one’s ability to fund a retirement efficiently.

I recommend Plan B only for older households who clearly have enough cash socked away in retirement accounts and want to support grandchildren or adult kids. For everyone else, a bit of careful planning, following the steps above, should help avoid Plan B, putting your kids on the right path to future success.


Kent Smetters is the Boettner Chair Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the co-founder of Veritat Advisors, a firm focused on making quality financial planning affordable for all households. This article is adapted from a Veritat white paper, for which Trent Porter provided research support.

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