Q&A: How to get the maximum in financial aid

Dear Liz: I’m having trouble finding information about how to structure my finances to get the maximum financial aid for my kids when they enter college. For example, will contributing to an IRA instead of a taxable investment account matter? Should I focus on paying off my mortgage or should I buy a bigger house and acquire debt in the process if I want my kids to qualify for more aid? There’s plenty of advice out there about how to minimize taxes — for example, by contributing to 401(k)s or selling losing stocks at year-end. But I’m interested in legally and ethically shielding my assets from the family contribution calculations used by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Any idea how I can learn more about the inner workings of the FASFA formula?

Answer: Before you rearrange your finances, you need to understand that most financial aid these days consists of loans, which have to be repaid, rather than scholarships and grants that don’t. Wanting your kids to qualify for more aid could just lead them to qualify for more debt.

Also, the FAFSA formula weighs income more heavily than assets. If you have a six-figure income and only one child in college at a time, you shouldn’t expect much need-based financial aid, regardless of what you do with your assets.

That said, there are some sensible ways to shield assets from the formula, and often they’re things you should be doing anyway: maxing out your retirement contributions, for example, and using any non-retirement savings to pay down credit cards, car loans and other consumer debt.

Using non-retirement savings to pay down mortgage debt helps with the federal formula, but may not help much with private schools that include home equity in their calculations. Either way, taking on a bigger mortgage with college looming is rarely a good idea.

You can get some idea of how much the federal formula expects you to pay for your children’s educations by using the “estimated family contribution” calculator at FinAid.org. Another great source of information is the book “Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid” by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy.

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  1. Don’t expect much aid. My experience with the FAFSA is that it penalizes those who have lived carefully and acquired some savings, and awards more aid (loans) to those who have been conspicuous consumers. Better to concentrate on having your children apply to schools where they have a chance of getting scholarships or grants.

    • Liz Weston says:

      Income matters the most to the FAFSA, so those who have substantial earnings typically won’t get much need-based financial aid, regardless of whether they’ve saved. Most people won’t have enough assets to matter to the FAFSA, but saving the “right” ways (in 529s and retirement funds) can minimize the impact for those who do.