Don’t buy an education you can’t afford

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.

High incomes limit financial aid

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.

Income matters more than assets in financial aid formulas

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.

 

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Got money? Save some of it for college

“If you can save for college, you probably should.”

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.

 

Don’t put college savings into custodial accounts

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.