if you’ve got a young family, you may be worrying about how you’re going to save for your kids’ college education on top of yours.
If you’ve finished your undergraduate or graduate degree, you’re probably in the thick of paying back student loans. And if you’ve got a young family, you may be worrying about how to start a college savings plan for your kids’ education on top of your own loans.
It may well be that the traditional college model changes before today’s youngsters get there, or at least that today’s cost structure changes—because the general consensus is that increases can’t continue unchecked. Already, New York has created the tuition-free Excelsior Scholarship for families earning $125,000 or less. Other states offer free community college and more are getting onboard. Experts also predict the rise of MOOCs (massive open online classes) and competency-based learning to replace some aspects of traditional classrooms.
Whatever the future holds, you will have more flexibility if you start putting money aside for college—or some form of post-high school education—as early as possible. Right now, many families with high school students don’t start understanding college costs until their child’s senior year. Without adequate college savings, many end up borrowing more than they should. So even if college in 20 years looks different, here’s why it makes sense to start early.
1. Students these days can’t foot the bill on their own the way their GenX/Boomer parents could. Currently, dependent undergraduate students aren’t allowed to borrow more than $31,000 over five years (with some exceptions). The undergraduate federal loan limit protects students from borrowing too much. But then there’s grad school. Added up, student debt is a pain point for Grownups, and they don’t want their own kids to experience the same. But to help effectively, you need to start stashing money early.
2. It allows putting away smaller chunks. Families feel overwhelmed and worried about projected future costs of college. Plus it seems so far away. But even $10,000 in a college savings account means your child doesn’t need to borrow that amount, and squirreling money away over a longer period means you can break it into manageable pieces. College experts recommend the one-third equation as a guideline. Save one-third, plan to pay one-third out of income while your child is in college, and borrow one-third (students should borrow first). This equation might not be as relevant in 15 years, but for now, let it serve as a useful fraction. If you can put away more than one-third, great! Just don’t neglect your retirement.
3. Early saving offers flexibility. Even if you can’t dedicate much, starting early gives money time to grow, especially if it’s put in a tax-advantaged college plan. With adequate time, it can even grow enough to fund that one-third fraction listed above. As a comparison, if you start investing when your kids hit high school, it’s possible that less than 10 percent of the final amount paid for college costs will come from investment earnings. Compound interest works. Starting early also offers the flexibility to take periodic breaks if finances get tight. Allocating for college isn’t easy when you’re living on entry-level salaries with diaper and daycare costs, but consider rerouting that money into a college vehicle when kids age out of baby and toddler expenses.
4. Saving opens up college options. Families who have nothing set aside don’t have many choices when it comes time for their kid to apply. It’s easy to say “my kid will just have to get scholarships,” but those aren’t easy to win. Full-ride scholarships do exist, but what if your kids aren’t straight-A students or top tier athletes? What if they don’t want to go to the college that offers them a scholarship? What if they don’t earn a scholarship in the end? Many kids don’t. Sometimes there are no deals and the family ends up saying yes to something they can’t afford—because the right opportunity didn’t come through. Maybe you experienced this phenomenon yourself as a student.
5. Saving doesn’t impact qualifying for financial aid nearly as much as you think. It’s your income that the FAFSA weights much more heavily. So if you’re a high-income attorney with no money set aside living in an expensive city, colleges will likely demand a bigger contribution from you than from a middle-income family with a 529 plan living in a less expensive town. Most colleges don’t take into account cost of living or debt issues—at least right now they don’t. Plus they’re bound by federal financial aid formulas, so they can’t offer more grants or scholarships just because you think you need more. That college account will help pay the bills.
6. Colleges expect families to contribute. Even back when your parents went to college, their parents’ finances were included on financial aid forms. Counting family income isn’t new, but it is harder these days to become an independent student. The FAFSA generates an “expected family contribution” and it’s usually uncomfortably high. The EFC isn’t what you pay; it’s an assessment of what you’re able to pay based on a number of factors. If your child attended a college that costs less than your EFC, for example, you would pay full costs. Or a college might expect you to pay more than your EFC.
Bottom line, earmarking money for college will only help you. Just make sure you choose the right vehicles to ensure the funds get counted as parent assets, not child assets. If it all feels like a lot, get in touch with a fee-based financial advisor who understands college and isn’t pushing a product. They can help you decide where to put your money.
Joanna Nesbit writes about college, education, personal finance, and the nuts and bolts of transitioning to adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit or learn more at Joannanesbit.com.
Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.
While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, consult the advice of a financial planner.