A free guide to filling out the FAFSA–get it now!

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailExciting news: One of the most-respected experts in financial aid has written a book about filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)–and right now you can get it as a free PDF download.

Mark Kantrowitz, who helmed FinAid.org for years and is now publisher of Edvisors, has this to say about the book he co-authored with David Levy, who has 30 years’ experience as a university financial aid director:

The book is packed with 250 pages of insights and advice about filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), along with a step-by-step guide to completing the application form. There are tips about increasing eligibility for need-based aid, avoiding the most common errors and appealing for more student aid. I have attached a tip sheet about Filing the FAFSA that is based on the book.

If you have a kid heading off to college, this book is a must read. To get the book, register (also for free) at the Edvisors site. The book is also available to buy on Amazon in paperback for $24.95. The Kindle version is $8.95.

Lowering college costs: What you need to know

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailMy latest Reuters columns focus on financial aid and new opportunities for borrowers with private student loans to get some relief.

One of the big complaints about private student loans is how hard it’s been to consolidate or refinance these often high-rate, variable loans. Many big lenders fled this market and those that still offered the loans weren’t much interested in reducing rates for borrowers.

That’s starting to change as smaller lenders see the opportunities to cherry pick the most credit-worthy borrowers and offer them better rates. A new entrant into the market, RBS Citizens, is even offering fixed-rate refinancing. (RBS operates as Citizens Bank in the northeast and Charter One elsewhere.) For more, read “Student loan borrowers get relief from small lenders.”

Meanwhile, the financial aid season is in full swing as families submit their FAFSA forms and hope for the best. My column “How asking for aid could hurt your college chances” warns that most schools aren’t truly need blind, which is why you need a strategy for getting admitted.

Since most families need some help in cutting college costs, going without financial aid isn’t a smart option. In “Seven ways to help your child get more money for college,” I review the best ways to lower your expected family contribution. “Four financial aid strategies that can backfire” covers the strategies that won’t work.

In addition to those four, here are two other approaches doomed to fail:

Making kids “independent.” A father with a hefty income said that he didn’t plan to help any of his kids pay for college. He rationalized that without his support they could be considered “independent” for financial aid purposes and get help based on their own meager income and assets.

Sorry, Dad, but colleges closed that loophole decades ago. The Higher Education Amendments of 1992 tightened the definition of who qualified as independent for federal financial aid purposes to people who are:

  • 24 years of age or older
  • orphans or wards of the court and those who were wards of the court until age 18
  • veterans of the U.S. armed forces
  • graduate or professional students
  • married
  • parents or who have legal dependents other than a spouse
  • students for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances.

A parent who simply refuses to help isn’t typically considered one of those “unusual circumstances.” Financial aid will be based on his resources, which can effectively cut off grants, scholarships and loans for the children he won’t help.

Faking in-state residency. College consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy of San Diego heard from a family who thought they would only have to pay out-of-state tuition rates for their daughter for the first year, believing that after spending her freshman year at the school she would qualify for in-state tuition.

States vary considerably in defining residency but typically require that at least one parent be a state resident for a full year before the student starts college. If the parents are divorced, residency is based on where the custodial parent lives. FinAid.org has a list of state residency requirements on its site.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to avoid charity scams. Also in the news: Money lessons from retirees, money-saving tips for travelers, and how a grandparents’ gift for college could ruin a student’s financial aid.

4 Ways to Avoid Charity Scams
Protecting your empathy from being preyed upon.

5 Financial Lessons from Retirees
Voices of experience.

3 Smart Money-Saving Tips For Your Travels
More money for souvenirs!

Grandparents’ 529 College Distributions Can Be a Ticking Time Bomb
A loving gesture which could ruin a student’s financial aid.

Laid Off? 5 Tips To Get Back On Your Feet
How not to become complacent during a layoff.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Saving money while expecting a baby. Also in the news: How to finance your closing costs, teaching your kids about money, and financial tips for adults going back to school.

9 Ways to Save Money When You’re Expecting a Baby
One for every month!

How to Finance Your Mortgage Closing Costs
Little known ways to absorb your closing costs.

5 ways to teach kids about money that work
Letting them make mistakes can be a valuable lesson.

Financial tips for adults returning to college
FAFSA’s aren’t just for kids.

Financial Frenemies: Who Makes You Overspend?
When friends can be bad influences on your wallet.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Old Woman Hand on CaneToday’s top story: The warning signs of elder financial exploitation. Also in the news: Five harmless things that can hurt your credit, news apps to help college and financial aid searches, and what to do if you win the lottery.

Warning Signs of Elder Financial Exploitation
How to detect financial exploitation of our seniors.

5 Seemingly Harmless Things That Can Hurt Your Credit
How library fees and traffic tickets can ding your credit score.

20 new apps to help your college and financial aid search
Finding financial aid from your smart phone.

7 Painless Ways to Cut Expenses in Retirement
Ways to cut back without feeling the pinch.

Spending: What you need to know about winning a lottery
Someone has to win.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Leader of business teamThe best places to work when you’re over 50, how not to support your kids for the rest of your life and tips on retiring almost tax free.

The 50 Best Employers for Boomer Workers
The fifty best employers for those over fifty.

5 Methods for Setting Retirement Targets
Strategic planning to reach your retirement goals.

5 Tips for Parents On How to Be Good Financial Role Models
Being a good financial role model could save you from supporting your kids in their 20’s and beyond.

How to Negotiate Financial Aid With Your College
Everything is negotiable; even financial aid.

3 Moves to Make Your Retirement Almost Tax Free
How to pursue as much tax free retirement income as possible.

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.

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.

 

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.