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Dear Liz: My husband and I took out more than $200,000 in federal parent PLUS loans to pay for our two daughters’ college educations. My husband earned over $300,000 when the loans were made. Since then, he lost his job and now makes $100,000. I went back to work and earn $35,000. We finally succeeded in getting a more affordable mortgage, but we are taking about $3,000 out of our savings each month to pay the bills.
My husband handles the finances and says that even if we could lower our loan payments, it wouldn’t matter because we still have to pay forever. He can’t even think about retiring. We do have a financial advisor, but I’m very concerned and wonder whether we should be using our savings this way. What are our options?
(P.S. Our girls both graduated, although one doesn’t have a great job and the other is still looking for work.)
Answer: Parent PLUS loans can, in moderation, help families pay for their children’s college educations. The key phrase there is “in moderation.” Even at your former income level, taking on so much debt for your children’s educations was ill-advised.
You don’t have a lot of options, unfortunately. As you probably know, this debt typically can’t be erased in Bankruptcy Court. If you stop paying, the government can take your federal and state tax refunds, garnish up to 15% of any Social Security benefit payments and ruin your credit, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.
“The government can also sue defaulted borrowers to recover the debt if they believe the borrower has sufficient funds to repay,” Kantrowitz said.
Ideally, you wouldn’t have borrowed more than you could have paid off before retirement (while still being able to contribute to your retirement savings). Since that’s not the case, your best strategy may be to simply get the payments as low as you can and resign yourself to paying this bill, perhaps until you die. (PLUS loans are canceled when the borrower dies and are not charged against the borrower’s estate, Kantrowitz said.)
As you suspect, it’s not a good idea to dip into savings to pay your monthly bills, especially when you’re doing so in the vague hope that things will get better rather than in the face of concrete evidence that they will.
There are several ways of stretching out the term of the loan to reduce your payments. One is using all available deferments and forbearances to suspend repayment for a few years. Then you could use an extended repayment plan to stretch out the loan term to 30 years.
Normally you wouldn’t want to take deferments and forbearances because interest continues to accrue, digging you into a deeper hole, Kantrowitz said. “But if the goal is to reduce the burden of the monthly payments and not ever fully repay the debt, it can be a workable strategy,” he said.
Another possible option for some families is an income-contingent repayment plan. Parent PLUS loans aren’t eligible for the more favorable income-based repayment plan, but income-contingent plans could lower your payments to 20% of your discretionary income, with the balance of the loans forgiven after 25 years of repayment. Discretionary income in this case is the amount of your income over the poverty line.
To qualify, you’d need to consolidate your Parental PLUS loans into a Direct Loan consolidation loan. You can find out more at http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov. Given your current income, though, you may be better off with the extended repayment plan.
Dear Liz: Please make me feel like I’m doing the right thing. My daughter happens to be very talented academically and athletically. She will graduate from one of the best prep schools in the country. She also plays ice hockey and is being recruited by some of the best schools. However, we are of middle-class means. We were given outstanding aid from her prep school, which made it very affordable. The net price calculators of the colleges recruiting her indicate we won’t get nearly the same level of support.
We have a lot of equity in our home and about $25,000 total in college funds for both of our children (we also have a son in 9th grade). We make about $185,000 as a family and pay about 12% to mandatory retirement and healthcare accounts. I’m hoping by some magical formula we can beat the “calculator” but I’m not so confident. So please tell me that paying for an elite education is worth our sacrifices. Our daughter has worked very hard to put herself in a position to gain entry into these schools, but I just need an expert to make me feel better.
Answer: An expert who makes you feel better about buying an education you can’t afford isn’t doing you any favors.
So let’s do a reality check. The amount you have saved for both your children would pay for a little more than one semester at most elite schools, which run around $60,000 a year these days. If she finishes in four years, that’s a price tag of about a quarter of a million dollars.
Of course, most college students don’t pay the sticker price for college. They get some kind of help. You, however, can’t expect much of that help, since you’re really not “of middle-class means.” At your current income, you make more money than about 95% of American households. Financial aid formulas don’t particularly care that you may live in an expensive area or that you prioritized spending over saving, only realizing too late that you can’t afford the schools your daughter wants to attend.
The exceptions may be Ivy League schools, many of which have committed to capping tuition costs even for upper-income families. If your daughter gets into one of those schools, she may have a shot at an affordable education.
Other schools may be willing to give her “merit aid” to induce her to attend, especially if she’s an outstanding hockey player and they want outstanding hockey players. But you’ll still be left with a sizable bill and only one way to pay for it: borrowing, either from your home equity or via federal student loans. Your daughter can borrow $5,500 in federal loans her first year, but as parents you can borrow up to the full cost of her education from the federal PLUS loan program.
Which leads to the question: Is taking on up to a quarter of a million dollars in debt for an undergraduate degree a sacrifice or is it insane? Before you answer, consider that some research shows that students who are accepted to elite schools, but attend elsewhere, do just as well in life as people who actually attend those elite schools. (The exceptions are kids from lower-income families, who actually do get a boost in life from attending elite schools. Obviously, that doesn’t include your child.)
Also consider how you’ll feel about making payments of $1,800 a month or so for the next 30 years to pay for this education. And how you’ll feel telling your son, “Sorry, kid, we spent all the money on your sister. You’re on your own.”
The picture may not be as grim as all that. You may get a better deal from one of these schools than you expect. But you should start managing your daughter’s expectations now and look for some colleges you can actually afford in case the dream schools don’t come through for her.
Dear Liz: As an avid reader for years I have never felt as compelled to write as I did after reading your column regarding college financing. I disagree that college financial aid is based primarily on income or that “typically [parents are required to] contribute less than 6% of eligible assets.”
We filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid for our daughter, and our expected family contribution was calculated at $43,000. The school offered my daughter just $2,000 in work study, at a university with a $38,917 annual tuition. Our combined income is $175,000 and our liquid savings (not including retirement accounts) is $145,000.
We could pay 6% of our income (about $12,000) or 6% of income plus savings ($19,000) per year without taking loans, but not $38,000. I have attended several “paying for college” seminars and found their estimated contributions quite sugar-coated compared with the reality.
Rather than paying 6%, is the reality 25% of our income? Please let me know if we have done something wrong, and how to rectify it.
Answer: The 6% limit on eligible assets is not a cap on how much you’ll have to pay for college. As the original column said, income weighs more heavily in financial aid calculations than assets, and your income is high.
The federal financial aid formula assumes families with high earnings have more disposable income to pay for college than lower-earning families. The formula also assumes high-income families have had ample opportunities to save for college, whether or not they actually have.
You could use the net price calculator on the college’s website to see whether your liquid savings are having an effect on your expected family contribution. At some schools, using savings to pay down a mortgage or other debt could result in a lower expected contribution.
But you still might not get aid, even if you could move the needle on your expected contribution. Many colleges “gap” their students by not supplying enough aid to meet all their needs. And while some private colleges offer merit (rather than need-based) scholarships to attract the children of wealthier parents, top-tier schools tend not to, because they know they can attract excellent candidates without such help, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.”
Even if your family doesn’t have financial need according to the formula, your daughter is still eligible for federal student loans of as much as $5,500 in her freshman year. Federal student loans are flexible debt with fixed interest rates and many repayment options, so they shouldn’t be feared, especially in reasonable amounts. If, however, you would have to borrow much more, and that borrowing would interfere with your plans for retirement or other financial goals, you probably can’t afford this school and need to start looking for colleges you can afford.
Dear Liz: You write about it not being a good idea in many cases to pay off your mortgage, but does it make sense to do so to reduce savings so that we can be in a better position to help our high school junior get financial aid for college in a year? We also have a 529 and some investments and are savers.
Answer: Your income matters far more to financial aid calculations than your savings, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd Edition).” Another important factor is how many children you have in college at the same time. If you have a high income and only one child in college, you may not get much or any help, regardless of how your assets are arranged.
Many schools ignore home equity when figuring financial need, however, so it might be worth running some numbers. You can do that by using the net price calculators included on every college website. Pick the schools your junior might want to attend and run two scenarios on each calculator: one with your current financial situation and another in which you’ve paid off your mortgage with your savings.
Many parents are overly worried about how their savings will affect potential aid, O’Shaughnessy said. Parental assets, including 529 accounts, receive favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Your retirement assets aren’t included in the federal formula at all, and your non-retirement assets are somewhat shielded as well thanks to an “asset protection allowance.” The older you are, the more of an asset protection allowance you get. The allowance will be somewhere around $45,000 for a married couple in their late 40s, the typical age for college parents. For those over 65, the allowance is $71,000. Beyond that, you’re typically asked to contribute less than 6% of eligible assets toward your offspring’s education each year.
Dear Liz: I co-signed some private student loans for my youngest child. She graduated two years ago with about $80,000 in student debt, including federal and private loans. Like many other recent graduates, she has had a difficult time finding a job. She worked part time at a retail store until about a month ago and made around $7,000 annually. I have been helping her make reduced payments and she has gotten deferments and income-based repayment plans.
But I’m planning to retire in a few months and won’t be able to make the payments as I have been. I am heartsick about this whole situation, not just for my family, but also for thousands of young people who face this mountain of un-dischargeable debt. We desperately need some advice on how to deal with huge debt.
Answer: As you know, student loans typically can’t be shed in Bankruptcy Court. Even your Social Security benefits aren’t safe: In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s ability to offset Social Security disability and retirement benefits when a borrower has defaulted on federal student loans.
Income-based repayment plans can provide some relief with the federal loans. This repayment option limits the required payment to 15% of your daughter’s discretionary income, and her balance can be forgiven after 25 years, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org financial aid site. If your daughter has no income, her required payment would fall to zero. Unlike deferment and forbearance plans, which have three-year limits, the income-based repayment allows zero payments indefinitely. She should investigate signing up for such plans for all her federal loans.
The private loans you cosigned have far fewer repayment options. Some have forbearance and deferment options, while others do not. You may be able to negotiate a lower payment temporarily, or you may not. Because private student loans’ rates and terms aren’t regulated the same way federal loans’ are, they’re considered much riskier. Using them is kind of like paying for college with credit cards, except unlike with credit cards, the debt can’t be discharged.
It’s too late to tell you that you shouldn’t have co-signed loans so close to retirement or any time you would be unable to take over the payments. If you have sufficient equity in your home, you may want to consider using it to pay off the private loans. A variable-rate home equity line of credit would allow you to pay only interest for 10 years, while a fixed-rate home equity loan would lock in today’s current low rates for the 20-year life of the loan. You will, of course, be putting your home at risk if you can’t make those payments.
Another possibility is to postpone your retirement until your daughter is gainfully employed. This may not be desirable or even possible, but at the moment you’re the only one with income to repay these loans.
Otherwise, your option is to try to negotiate an affordable repayment plan with the private lenders, which is no easy task. For more information, visit the Student Loan Borrower Assistance program at http://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org.
That’s the mantra I’ve chanted in columns, speeches and interviews over the years. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal shows a lot of upper middle income parents aren’t listening, gauging by the amount of student loan debt they’re taking on. What the Journal found:
- Among households with annual incomes of $94,535 to $205,335 (80th to 95th percentile of all households), 25.6% had student-loan debt in 2010, compared to 19.5% in 2007. Among all households, 19.1% had education debt in 2010 compared to 15.2% three years earlier.
- The amount borrowed by upper middle income households rose to $32,869 from $26,639, after adjusting for inflation.
- Fat student loan bills are no longer an anomaly. More than three million households have a student loan balance of $50,000 or more. That compares to about 794,000 in 2001 and less than than 300,000 in 1989, after adjusting for inflation.
The Journal threw in another statistic: More than one in three households with incomes of $95,000 to $125,000 who had a child entering college in 2011 didn’t save or invest for that child’s education, according to a survey by Human Capital Research.
Here’s the deal: A child’s financial aid package will be based in large part on what the parents earn. If they have a six-figure income, or close to it, the kid won’t get much help. Colleges expect that if you have that much income, you should have been saving some of it for education–whether or not you actually did.
Even families with lesser means could find they’re getting a lot less help than they expected, with much of it coming in the form of loans rather than grants.
Either way, that means the parents, the kid or both could be taking on a lot of debt.
The Journal suggested that this burgeoning debt may lead more families to more carefully consider cost and value when considering colleges, something that “could make it difficult for all but the most selective schools to keep pushing through large tuition increases.”
We’ll see about that. In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to have a decent income, consider putting at least some of it aside for your kids’ educations. Do it even if you won’t be able to pay for everything, or you want your kid to be mostly responsible for the cost. Every dollar you save is a dollar your child–or you–won’t have to borrow later.
Dear Liz: I opened Uniform Transfers to Minors Act savings accounts for my two boys (now 7 and 10) when they were newborns. I chose not to go with the 529 college savings accounts because I didn’t like the restriction that the money had to be used for education. It has always been my intention to use these funds for college, but if they choose not to go to college, then it could be used to help them purchase their first homes, for example.
I’ve been squirreling away a couple hundred dollars each month in each account, but I read a few of your previous pieces and think maybe the UTMA accounts were not the best vehicle for this. Could they one day just demand the money and do with it whatever they want?
Answer: The short answer is yes. In most states, the money will become theirs at age 21 to spend however they want, although a few states let them have it at 18.
The other big disadvantage to custodial accounts such as UTMA and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts is that they’re counted as the child’s asset in financial aid calculations. That can substantially reduce the amount of aid they get.
But even more important than the financial details is your attitude. You need to give up this notion that not going to college is a reasonable option for your kids. In the 21st century, some kind of post-secondary education is all but a necessity for a person to remain in the middle class, labor economists tell us. Your sons don’t have to study at a four-year school, but they are likely to need at least some vocational training beyond high school.
If you want to reduce the effect of these accounts on any future financial aid packages, you have a couple of options. One is to spend the money before they get to college, although that’s probably not the route you’ll want to take, given how much money you’ve already saved. If the accounts were smaller, you might just use them to buy a computer, pay for summer camp or cover the cost of tutoring. Such expenditures are allowed as long as the money is spent for the benefit of the child and doesn’t pay for expenses that are your obligation as a parent (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).
Another option is to liquidate the accounts and invest the cash in 529 plans. This would dramatically reduce the money’s effect on financial aid calculations, since it would be considered your asset rather than your child’s. The money could be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified higher education expenses. If it’s not used for higher education, the contribution portion of the withdrawal won’t be taxed as income, but any earnings will be, plus there will be a 10% federal tax penalty on those earnings.
If you decide to transfer the money, the 529 account should be titled the same way as your UTMA accounts, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college planning website FinAid. Ownership of the account shifts to the child when he reaches the age the UTMA account would have terminated. That gives him control of the money if it’s not spent on education, but he would have had that anyway. You can read more about the details at http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml.
Dear Liz:I owe $75,000 in student loans. It took me seven years to graduate from college due to a car accident that happened during my second year. I am now 30 and doing all I can, working 12 to 14 hours a day, but I’m not making any headway. Most if not all of my loans have gone to collections. I get the phone calls, sometimes up to 30 a day. I need some advice on how to handle all of this. It is so overwhelming. Is it possible to consolidate all of this? Make one monthly payment to one entity?
Answer: You can consolidate your federal student debt into one loan and stretch out the repayment term, which could make the debt easier to pay. You may also qualify for the income-based repayment option. Most borrowers in the income-based plan have payments that are less than 10% of their gross incomes, said Mark Kantrowitz, editor of FinAid.org and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” After 25 years of payments, you would qualify for forgiveness of any remaining balance. The payment period is shortened to 10 years if you’re in a public service job.
Private student debt isn’t nearly as flexible. You typically can’t consolidate private student loans, and lenders offer fewer repayment options — and no forgiveness.
If you have both types of debt, you may be able to make some progress on repayment by consolidating your federal loans and paying the minimum possible on those so that you can throw every available dollar at your private loans.
If you have only private debt, you’ll need to negotiate directly with your lenders to see what options are available for more affordable repayment plans. It’s important to do this as soon as possible, since if your delinquency drags on for nine months your loans will be considered in default. That can have serious consequences for your credit history and your finances.
The National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project has a lot of information and resources for student borrowers, including information about loan rehabilitation and negotiating with lenders. You can also talk to the Default Resolution Group at the U.S. Department of Education by calling (800) 621-3115.