Should you bail on your 529 plan?

Education savingsLong-time readers know I’m a big fan of using state-run 529 college plans to save for higher education expenses. (Remember the mantra: if you can save for college, you should!) Money in these plans grows tax-free when used for qualified college costs and doesn’t have much impact on financial aid (which is going to be mostly loans, anyway).

But the plans aren’t created equal–in fact, they’re so diverse it’s kind of daunting to track and compare them. Investment research firm Morningstar does just that, though, and every year creates a list of the best (and worst) plans. That list gives us 529 investors a chance to compare our plans against a gold standard and consider whether we need a change.

I’ve changed plans once, from California’s then-middling plan to Nevada’s top-rated one, and was surprised by how easy it was. (We still have some money in California’s plan, which is now higher in Morningstar’s ratings.) Some people are tied to their state’s plan by tax breaks or other incentives, but many aren’t. If you’re not happy with your plan, it’s time to consider a change.

You can read more about it in my Reuters column this week, “Is it time to switch 529 college savings plans?

Will declining enrollment lower college costs?

Education savingsThe number of high school graduates peaked in 2011 at 3.4 million and will drop to about 3.2 million next year. That’s not a huge decline, granted, but it’s a big change from the two previous decades where colleges could count on an ever-growing population of “traditional age” students.

Still, the experts I interviewed for this week’s Reuters column about declining enrollment don’t believe we’ll see lower college costs any time soon. Less demand will moderate the increases, they say, and so will an improved economy. States are likely to restore some of the funds they cut during the recession and its aftermath, which should decrease the pressure to keep raising tuition.

The short version: college demographics, and college costs, are a many-faceted thing. There wasn’t just one factor that led to spiraling tuition costs, and a single factor won’t reverse that trend.

So keep contributing to that 529.

Parents, get your kids to college–but don’t give them a free ride

Paid education. Graduate cap on bank notesUSA Today reported that more families are considering cost when choosing a college:

The survey by Discover Student Loans, to be released Thursday, found that nearly half of adults are limiting their child’s college choices based on price. And with rising student loan debt and a job market that continues to greet college grads with not-so-open arms, the ability to find employment has become a top factor in deciding what to study. The number of adults who say earning potential is more important to their child’s education than what they major in is up, at 42% vs. 38% last year, the survey shows.

All I can say is: What’s going on with the other half that cost isn’t a factor? I can’t imagine all those parents have the savings necessary to fund four or five years of undergraduate study. (And even if they do, they probably shouldn’t foot the whole bill…more on that in a minute.)

The idea that economic considerations shouldn’t sully the college decision process is absurd. If you aren’t borrowing money to pay for school, then maybe your employment prospects can take a back seat to the joy of learning. If you are borrowing, though, it’s crucial that you pick a) a school you can afford and b) a major that will resort in gainful employment that pays more than what you would have made had you skipped college. You want to ensure your investment of borrowed money gives you a return that’s worth the cost.

I’ve written a lot about how important it is that your kids get post-secondary education in a world where there’s an increasing divide between those who have college degrees and those who don’t. (For more, read “Ignore the talk: college is vital,” “Should you pay for kid’s college?” and “Should your kid skip college?“) And I’ve argued that parents need to help pay for this education if they possibly can, since letting your kids try to go it alone is often setting them up for failure (read: no degree and tons of student loan debt).

But there’s evidence that giving kids a totally free ride is a bad idea. Parental help is associate with higher “completion” rates–kids actually get the degrees they go to college for–but lower grades. The column I wrote about this has a somewhat misleading headline (“Why parents shouldn’t pay for college“), since refusing to help if you can puts your kid at a severe disadvantage.

Still, the column hit a nerve. It was the most-shared article on MSN Money yesterday. It should provide some comfort to parents who can’t afford to pay the whole bill for college–but I hope it doesn’t provide comfort to those who can help, but won’t.

 

 

 

How much college savings is enough?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have three children, two in elementary school and one in middle school. Through saving and investing, we have amassed enough money to pay for each of them to go to a four-year college. In addition, we have invested 15% of our income every year toward retirement, have six months’ worth of emergency funds and have no debt aside from our mortgage and one car loan that will be paid off in a year. Considering that we have all the money we will need for college, should we move this money out of an investment fund and into something very low risk or continue to invest it, since we still have five years to go until our oldest goes to college and we can potentially make more money off of it?

Answer: Any time you’re within five years of a goal, you’d be smart to start taking money off the table — in other words, investing it more conservatively so you don’t risk a market downturn wiping you out just when you need the cash. The same is true when you have all the money you need for a goal. Why continue to shoulder risk if it’s not necessary?

You should question, though, whether you actually do have all the money your kids will need for college. College expenses can vary widely, from an average estimated student budget of $22,261 for an in-state, four-year public college to $43,289 for a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. Elite schools can cost even more, with a sticker price of $60,000 a year or more.

Another factor to consider is that it may take your children more than four years to complete their educations, particularly if they attend public schools where cutbacks have made it harder for students to get required courses in less than five years, and sometimes six.

So while you might want to start moving the oldest child’s college money into safer territory and dial back on the risks you’re taking with the younger children’s funds, you probably don’t want to exit the stock market entirely. A 50-50 mix of stocks and short-term bonds or cash could allow the younger children’s money some growth while offering a cushion against stock market swings.

A session with a fee-only financial planner could give you personalized advice for how to deploy this money.

It’s National 529 Day!

College studentWho doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.

Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:

If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)

More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”

529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.

Learn more by reading “The best and worst 529 plans” and this primer on Motley Fool.

Graduating without student loans is tough

Education savingsA few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.

I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.

Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.

Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:

But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.

A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.

If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.

Kids, ignore your elders: college is worth it

CollegeOld folks can offer wisdom about many things, but you might not want to trust them when it comes to 21st century economics.

I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.

In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)

But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.

It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.

Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.

But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.

None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.

But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.

Why college is more expensive now

Dear Liz: Thank you for your response to the reader who complained that college students who received student loans were getting a handout. You did a great job of highlighting the challenges today’s students face, but you didn’t talk about the main underlying cause. This is the defunding of state universities by state governments. In Oregon, for example, the state has gone from funding over 50% of the costs to current funding of 6%. The difference has been made up by tuition hikes and increasing the proportion of out-of-state (and foreign) students who pay much higher tuition. This is part of the reason that students are crowded out of classes. In Oregon, the medical school found it was better off giving up all state aid and going it alone. Other universities in Oregon are considering taking the same action. Schools founded with state money and supported for years with tax money will no longer be operated for Oregon students. They will be more like private schools, perhaps moving out of the reach of middle-class students. So the answer to the reader is that she did get government help to get through school, help that is now curtailed so students have to finance it themselves.

Answer: The reader didn’t specify what type of college she attended. But the withdrawal of state government funding in recent years has definitely made public college educations more expensive for many students. Meanwhile, many private schools have expanded their financial and merit aid budgets so that some students can attend a private college at a lower net cost than what they would pay for a public school.

Student loans aren’t handouts

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.

Saving for college: what parents need to know

I’m giving a talk this morning to fellow parents about saving for college. I’ll be covering three important topics: why you need to save, how much you need to save and where you should put the money you’re saving.

Why you need to save

A college degree, or at least some post-high school training, is already important if you want your kids to remain in the middle class. That’s only going to become more true in coming years. Read “Should your kid skip college?” for more.

If you can save, you probably should. Financial aid formulas will expect you to have put aside at least something if you’re middle income or above. The idea that saving will hurt your kid’s chances for financial aid is the #1 myth I address is “3 college myths that will cost you.” (You also should read the second part of this series, “Costly college myths part 2.”)

To learn more about financial aid, visit FinAid.org and try out its estimated family contribution calculator. Another good site: TheCollegeSolution.com.

How much you need to save

The answer: A horrifyingly large amount if you expect to pay the whole tab. Even if you start when your child is born, you’d need to save:

  • Nearly $500 a month to pay for a public college
  • Nearly $1,000 a month to pay for a typical private college that currently costs $40,000 a year
  • Nearly $1,500 a month to pay for an elite private school such as Harvard or USC.

If you don’t start saving until your child is older, you’d need to put aside even more to cover the entire bill for tuition, books, room, board and living costs.

(A note: Harvard, like other Ivy League colleges, has committed to capping the cost for education. Families earning $65,000 pay no tuition. Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 will contribute from 0 to 10 percent of income, depending on individual circumstances.  Significant financial aid also is available for families above those income ranges.)

Most families can’t save enough to pay the whole tab. But anything you can save likely will reduce your child’s need to take on debt. You can play with the numbers using SavingForCollege.com’s college savings calculator.

One thing you need to keep in mind: retirement savings must come first. Nobody will loan you the money you need to retire. But try to put aside at least $25 to $50 a month for college, and increase it as you can. Encourage grandparents and relatives to chip in as they can.

Where you should save

Three key points:

  • If your child stands any chance of getting financial aid, don’t put money in UTMAs, UGMAs or other custodial accounts, which are counted as the student’s assets and dramatically reduce financial aid.
  • Savings bonds have very poor returns and aren’t a great way for most to save for college.
  • State-run 529 plans are a good option for many families. The plans have limited impact on student aid awards. The money grows tax-free for college and the contributor retains control. There are estate-planning benefits as well. For more on which plan to use, read “The best and worst 529 plans.”

UPDATE: In my speech, I mentioned how Coverdells (Education Savings Accounts) were changing–I should have been clear that those changes haven’t happened yet. At the end of 2010, Coverdells were scheduled to revert back to their old version, where the limit on contributions was $500 (down from $2,000) and the money could be used only for college (instead of for K-12 as well). Congress actually extended the more favorable rules through 2012, so Coverdells aren’t scheduled to revert to their old form until the end of this year. Congress may extend the rules again, so anyone with a Coverdell may want to wait before they transfer the money to a different type of account.