College Savings Myths


It is clear that college is indeed worth it, but assuming massive amounts of debt to attain the coveted degree may not be. That's why it's so important for families to get a head start on the process by saving as early as possible. Unfortunately, many simply do not have the resources to save for college. For those who could afford to save, there are misconceptions -- and flat-out myths -- which prevent them from acting. To help, it's time to dispel some of those myths right now! 1.“I’m not going to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, because I make too much money to qualify.”

What’s the number one reason that families don’t qualify for financial aid? According to one college financial aid officer, the answer is obvious: because families do not complete the necessary paperwork. Those with household income below $250,000 and two dependents should spend the time and at least attempt to grab a few bucks. Maybe it will all be for naught, or maybe a few tedious hours of work will be worth a few thousand dollars next semester.

2.“I’m not going to save for college because it will count against me for financial aid.”

Some of your savings can reduce a portion of your need-based aid, but the amount of that reduction may be smaller than you think. The money in retirement plan accounts is not counted, nor is the equity in the family's residence. Additionally, a portion of assets held by the parents is not counted, based on the age of the older parent.

Assets owned by parents for a dependent child are assessed up to 5.64 percent, while assets in the child’s name are assessed at a 20 percent rate, which is why it's preferable to hold accounts in the parents’ names. Let’s say that by the time junior heads off to school, you have saved $100,000 in the kid’s 529 plan, your potential aid may be reduced by $5,640, leaving you with plenty of money to help pay for college.

3. "Rather than save for college, I’m going to count on government grants to cover costs."

Although grants are great, they will not cover the total nut for most colleges. The Pell Grant covers about 10 percent of current private four-year college costs and work study can add up to another 20 percent.

 4. "Why save now when I can borrow later?"

Before families start saving for college, I recommend that they get their financial houses in order. That means paying down consumer debt, establishing an emergency reserve fund of six to 12 months worth of expenses and maximizing their retirement savings. But once those big three goals have been accomplished, it makes sense to save today rather than worrying about whether interest rates will rise in the future. Put another way, when you save, you earn interest; while when you borrow, you pay interest.

5. “My kid is a great soccer/basketball/football player, so he/she will get a scholarship.”

As a former varsity NCAA athlete, let me share something with you that few others will tell you: your kid is probably not as good an athlete you think. Of course I thought that I was an awesome soccer player when the collegiate recruiters came calling, but within the first week of practice, I quickly learned that I was a decent player and one who would never have been given a free ride. It is very difficult to earn a scholarship and it is not prudent to count on a future scholarship as the basis of your college funding plan.

6. "I don’t want to ask my parents for help."

It takes a village and often many generations to fund a college education. If you have parents with means and and education is important to you and your kids, ask for help! Just remember that how the extended family helps can have a big impact on a student’s financial aid chances.

A grandparent’s assets are not included when colleges determine eligibility for financial aid. However, there is a big downside to using a 529 plan that is in the grandparent’s name: When money is withdrawn to make a payment on behalf of the beneficiary of the plan, students must disclose those amounts as income. For every dollar of income, a student’s aid eligibility may be reduced by as much as 50 cents. In order not to diminish the ability to receive aid, there are a few work-around solutions.

i. Wait to use money in the 529 until the student’s senior year: Tapping the account for the last year of school shouldn't affect eligibility, because the year in which the income will be reported (as income for the previous year) will also be the year in which the student graduates.

ii. Transfer ownership of account: A few years before the first aid application is due, grandparents could transfer ownership of the account to a parent of the beneficiary. Assets in a parent-controlled account get assessed for financial aid purposes, but disbursements do not appear on the income statement of either the parent or the student. Fair warning on this idea: some states, like New York, do not allow changes in account ownership unless there’s a court order or the owner dies.

iii. If the 529 plan ownership seems too complicated, grandparents might considering gifting the money to the parents, who can then deposit the gift into their own 529 accounts that have been established for the kids. It makes sense to wait until after the aid has been determined before making the gift. Alternatively, extended family members may choose to wait until the student has graduated and then help with college loan repayment.