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For most families, paying for college for their kids rivals buying a home as the largest investment that they will ever make.

College is viewed – and rightfully so – as a key to a better future.  Even as the cost of college continues to escalate at a pace almost double the inflation rate (nearly 5% per year compared to the historic average of nearly 3% for CPI), there is still a high and growing demand for higher education services.  The proportion of high school graduates who enroll in a degree program within one year of graduating from high school has grown from 49% in 1976 to 66% in 2006-07 according to the College Boards “Trends in College Pricing 2008” report.

Going to College:  Still Worth It

Generally, it is still worth the investment.  According to the US Census Bureau, those with a college degree on average will earn a median income of nearly twice that of someone with a high school degree. And other research indicates that those with a college degree historically have lower and shorter periods of unemployment.  (This may not seem like it as we go through the ongoing impact of the Great Recession but there is data supporting this).

Colleges know this and as a result price their “product” according to this demand for more educational services. One result is that without consumer pressure the colleges are pricing their “product” at whatever the market will bear.  And that price tag continues to go up. At last count, a four-year degree at a public university was around $16,000 per year for all tuition and fees. For private schools this number falls into the $34,000+ per year category.

To pay for this some parents will do almost anything and make almost any sacrifice sometimes to the detriment of their own financial health. So how do we balance the long-term investment in our children with the long-term investment in our own retirement?

Do you want to pay less for your student’s college education? Do you want to find a better way to balance paying for college without sacrificing your retirement nest egg? Be an informed consumer. Wrong, outdated or misguided information about paying for college or qualifying for financial aid just compound the problem for many families.

Too often families are under the mistaken belief that there is nothing that they can do but suck it up and write the check.  Or there is the dream of the big money athletic scholarship.  Or they mistakenly think that there is no financial aid.

All of these beliefs are dangerous to your family’s financial health. The key is having the right information and help to navigate through the minefield that is college funding and financial aid.

Myths about Financial Aid

1. Not Enough Financial Aid is Available.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, students received about $168 billion in financial aid.  This included the entire spectrum of aid such as grants, scholarships, Work Study, low-interest and government-subsidized loans. The largest proportion of this aid is in the form of loans.  Despite the budget woes in Washington, there is still money available for college through these programs.

2. Only students with good grades get financial aid.

Not true.  Colleges are seeking diversity among their classes.  Admissions officers are looking to have students from every socio-economic demographic represented.  And every student has some special skill to add to the mix. The key here is to match up the right student with the right school.  Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond?  Someone who is a “B” student but with a particular aptitude in a subject might have better odds of getting into a smaller school and be offered aid than the valedictorian competing with every other valedictorian applying to Harvard.

3. You have to be a minority to get financial aid.

Again, this is false.  Financial aid comes in many forms.  Loans are awarded based on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is influenced by family size, parental income, and number of kids attending college at the same time. Loans are need-based and are color-blind.

4. I won’t need government help.  I’ll get scholarship money.

While you may have a talented student who excels in a particular sport, extracurricular activity or is gifted academically, hope is not a plan.  Consider the fact that National Merit Scholarships are very prestigious but can be  double-edged sword.  A student may receive the scholarship but receive no other aid from the school leaving the parent or student to foot the entire remaining bill.

Remember that College Planning is NOT just saving FOR college. It is not just saving in a 529 Plan.  College Planning is tailored to an individual family’s needs and is focused on SAVING ON the cost of college by using all the strategy tools in the financial aid tool box:  savings, investments, taxes and EFC reporting.

5. I make too much money to qualify for any aid or be able to do anything to lower the cost.

False.  This is the biggest myth of all and the most dangerous.  While a family with significant income may not be eligible for needs-based aid, there are dozens of strategies available that may lower the cost of college.  And even with a short amount of time until school, there are ways to lower the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before filing a financial aid form.

  • Knowing how and where to hold your assets may help you qualify for more aid.  Hint:  Retirement accounts are a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
  • Checking your ego at the door when completing the FAFSA can help qualify you for more aid.  Be careful how you report the value of home or business equity or your stock portfolio.  Most people overestimate because they don’t know this one tip.

6. I have a child entering college next year and it’s too late to do anything.

Absolute nonsense.  I can literally rattle off at least 12 cost-saving tips including transfer credits, AP testing and proper use of home equity.  There are another dozen ways to lower your EFC and 10 different ways to save in the most tax-efficient way.

For one early retiree I showed him one strategy that netted him more than $9,000 in free, no-strings aid from Babson College for his college freshman son.  For another, I showed him tax strategies that will save him the cost of one year of tuition at Colby College for his soon-to-be freshman.

BOTTOM LINE: The Less You Know, the More You Pay.  The More You Think You Know, the More You Pay. The More You Know, the Less You Really Pay.

Pay Less for College with a Personal College Plan

Saving ON College Starts Here

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I would suggest something that can be added to over time by you and other friends or relatives. In this category, that would include the following:

  • UGMA/UTMA accounts
  • 529 Savings Accounts
  • Zero-Coupon Bonds
  • EE Savings Bonds
  • Individual Corporate or US Treasury Bonds
  • Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRiP)

1.) UGMA/UTMA accounts that can invest in a diversified fund(s) or use proceeds to buy shares of some large diversified companies – Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway would work here;

2.) 529 savings account with maybe a target date allocation (tied to when the child is 18 y.o.);

3.) Zero-coupon bond (target face amount could be equal to part of an expected year of college tuition expense for example);

4.) EE Savings Bonds (as mentioned before, the taxes are zero when used for education and you can always buy more of them in reasonable denominations);

5.) Specific company or US Government bonds would have maturities that are close to the time frames you noted.

6.) Participate in a company-sponsored dividend reinvestment program (DRiP) by buying a single share of stock.  When the company issues its dividends, the proceeds will be used to buy shares (even fractional shares) in the company.  Over time, this is a cost effective way to build a stock position.  And since most companies that offer such plans are ones with brand names that children may know, it’s a great way to help kids gain an interest in savings and investing.

On a separate note for longer range thinking, you may also want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA once the child gets older and starts earning his own money from odd jobs, paper routes or the local grocery. If the rules don’t change and the child has earned income, he can contribute some of his earnings (or parents can consider it as long as it doesn’t exceed the total earnings).

Roth IRA proceeds can be tapped to pay toward college or toward a house down payment and if not used can at least be great seed money for retirement. (Yes, the rules could change but something to keep on the radar screen for when the time comes).

Now consider that as a way for a gift to really have a long term impact.

CAUTION: Giving the funds to a child when they reach a certain age without any strings could backfire. That’s why others here have mentioned things like the 529 or a UGMA account. Short of paying for a trust at least these structures allow you to place some restrictions on the use of the funds for the benefit of the child or for education specifically in the case of a 529. So if opening up any type of mutual fund direct with a fund family or even a brokerage account to hold the stocks or bonds suggested, consider having it titled in one of these forms.

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