College Savings Category
Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.
I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?
Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.
You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.
And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.
Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.
If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.
Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.
Dear Liz: I am grandmother to two girls ages 10 and 14. I contribute to their Section 529 college funds and pay for expenses such as dental bills, dance lessons and so on. Is there a way I can deduct these contributions from my income tax?
Answer: Most states offer at least a partial tax deduction for 529 college plan contributions, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid sites FinAid and FastWeb. The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, which have state income taxes but no deduction; and Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, which don’t have state income taxes.
To get a deduction, you typically have to contribute to the plan offered by your home state rather than ones offered by other states. For more details, visit www.finaid.org/savings/state529deductions.phtml.
In general, you can’t take deductions for other expenses paid on behalf of your grandchildren. (If they’re your dependents — they live with you and you provide more than half their support — you could claim exemptions and possibly tax credits, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) However, any medical or tuition expenses you pay directly on their behalf don’t count toward your annual gift tax exclusion, as discussed here last week.
Dear Liz: I read your response to the person questioning the rationale behind taxpayer-supported federal student loans. Your response was well written, but do you have any information about how much money is owed to the government for student loans and what percentage of all the loans are actually paid back in full? You mentioned that the government can garnish wages and Social Security checks and seize tax refunds, but does the government follow through and hold these people accountable? Does the government have personnel to do this or is this just a threat?
Answer: Millions of unhappy student loan borrowers can assure you the government’s considerable powers to collect defaulted student loans are much more than a threat. In addition to its own collection activities, the U.S. Department of Education also hires a number of private collection agencies to help recoup what’s owed.
As a result, the government collects more than 100 cents on every defaulted dollar once accumulated interest and penalties are included, according to the Education Department’s most recent report. On a net present value basis — when future collections are discounted back to today’s dollars — the government recovers about 80% of the defaulted debt.
Decades ago, it was possible to skip out on federal student loan debt without serious consequences. Public outrage over that fact led to much stronger collection efforts. That has resulted in the federal government recovering about $10 billion in defaulted student loan debt every year, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb financial aid sites.
Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today’s students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else’s children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn’t have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.
Answer: Let’s start with the obvious, which is that an education costs a heck of a lot more than it did when you were in college.
The College Board reports that a student attending an in-state, four-year public university needs to budget an average of $22,261 to pay for the 2012-13 year. Which means the total cost to get an undergraduate degree would be about $90,000, assuming he or she can get all the required courses in four years (something that’s increasingly difficult because of state budget cuts in education).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t many jobs these days that would enable someone (particularly someone without a college degree) to save the full cost of a college education in a single year. Even someone who started out with two years of community college would need to budget about $8,000 for each of those years, according to the College Board, and the total cost of a four-year degree would still be around $60,000. Some people would pay less if they got a lot of financial aid or lived at home, but any way you cut it, the tab is much, much higher than it has been in decades past.
Something else has changed since you were a student, and that’s the importance of having a college education if you want to have a decent financial life and remain in the middle class. In your day, people without college educations — even those without high school diplomas — could find well-paying jobs. Those jobs have increasingly been phased out by technology or they’ve gone overseas. The manufacturing and technical jobs that remain often require at least some post-secondary education. Having a college degree is what having a high school diploma used to be — an essential entry-level credential in many fields.
Our nation and our economy need educated workers if we’re to be competitive in a global economy. It also would help to have an expanding pool of well-paid workers to pay taxes toward things like roads, defense, police and fire protection and Social Security, from which you presumably benefit.
This is why governments promote post-secondary education with a relatively small amount of grants for the needy, and a relatively large amount of loans for everyone else. The first federal student loans were part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958; today, most students borrow at least some portion of their education costs.
You see, most kids (and their parents) aren’t standing around waiting for a handout. Most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. These loans aren’t necessarily cheap — the rate on a Stafford student loan is 6.8%, while graduate and parent PLUS loans have 7.9% rates (plus a 4% origination fee that’s deducted from each disbursement).
If students or their parents default, the government can garnish their wages, seize their tax refunds, take a chunk of their Social Security checks and trash their credit. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans and only rare relief in Bankruptcy Court, so borrowers can be pursued to their graves for what they owe.
Yes, many families overspend on education and overdose on student loans. The majority, however, graduate with a reasonable amount of debt (about $26,000 on average) that can be repaid from their now-higher earnings. Student loans aren’t a handout — they’re an investment in both the graduate and our economy.
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.
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.