My personal bar for my children’s education is modest. I hope they’re happy and successful enough that they won’t need to live at home. That’s it. Sure, I’d love for them to have wealth beyond measure (or at least enough to support ‘ole dad in his golden years), but that’s icing on the cake.
I know for certain they’ll need a solid education to have a leg up when searching for a job. Paying for college isn’t a gift to my kids…it’s a gift to me and my own retirement plan….without children begging me for cash.
If you haven’t thought about how you’ll plan for college, now is a great time.
Here are the five steps you’ll need to navigate to create a successful college attack:
What’s Your Target
If junior is only two years old, it’s impossible to discern whether that giggle means she wants to attend Harvard or the local community college. But because a college degree is so expensive, parents need to decide what they can afford early on to set a reasonable target.
Decide these three points as soon as possible:
– What type of school would you like to afford?
– How much college should your child pay for on their own?
– What are you going to do to help junior find money to afford their portion (assuming you’ll make junior foot some of the bill)
Once you’ve determined the type of school you’d like to afford, now we know what we’re aiming for.
Price Your School
Here’s the single most ugly step in planning for education: peeking at the price tag.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to create a successful college plan without knowing what it’ll cost. Visit college websites to determine how expensive your little pride-and-joy’s educational journey is going to be. As I just mentioned, this eye-popping experience may cause you to rethink point #1 above. In my experience helping clients plan, we’d set some lofty college goals, knowing that at the very least, if they miss the top rung, they’d still be able to afford the next lower rung.
According to FinAid.org, it’s a good idea to plan on education costs rising at double the inflation rate. This means that a number around eight percent inflation would work as a conservative estimate.
What does this mean? When you begin putting money aside, you aren’t going to need to save today’s costs of an education. Au contraire, you’re going to need to meet the cost in future dollars. That means that you’ll need to use a calculator add eight percent per year to today’s cost to find out the true goal. Armed with this number, you’ll then backtrack to today to find out how much you’ll need to save per month to reach your future education cost goal. Now you have benchmarks and a target. Game on!
Understand Financial Aid Programs
Many people understand that saving into an IRA plan can damage your retirement plan if you’re going to leave work at age 35. These same people fail to realize that certain ways of saving can severely impact the amount of money you’ll need to save for college for your children. Simply put, different than retirement–which you want to enjoy–college is an experience to survive. If you can succeed in finding a prestigious institution that will cost you nothing to attend, that’s fantastic. For most, the goal is “maximum education for minimum price.”
To receive the minimum price, you must pay attention to how you save money. Colleges will only subsidize your education if you qualify in one of three areas:
- academic scholarships.
- athletic scholarships.
- need-based aid.
If your child is young enough, you can help junior secure good grades to possibly qualify for an academic scholarship. Qualifying is half of the battle. The other half is actually finding and applying for these opportunities. While colleges try and lure the best and brightest they can find, your child in one of millions who’ll attend college some day. Much like a car dealership has to advertise a good deal, you’ll need to advertise your student.
That sounds awful. I’d just rather focus on grades.
Great. I promise you that someone who markets their grades will find many, many opportunities that the person who just focuses on grades alone will find. Hunt. Search. Show off your honor roll student. Colleges will pay you back by showing you opportunities you may not have discovered if left on your own.
Although every parent would like to think that their gifted athlete is headed for an NCAA Division I scholarship, this isn’t normally the case. There are far more gifted athletes than there are programs available. Even if you do have a child with a natural ability to run, jump or throw, you’ll need to still shop your athlete to schools to make sure coaches know you’re interested.
Scholarships often go to students who successfully market themselves rather than the most qualified individual.
That leaves need-based aid programs. A dollar saved depends on how it’s saved. If it’s saved in the students name, it counts differently than if it’s saved in a parent’s name. Also, money in a retirement plan is counted differently than cash in the bank. How you save is vitally important when a college is counting up how much you have. Do yourself a favor and learn how schools count before filling out aid forms. Colleges use a formula called “expected family contribution” to determine how much you’ll be able to afford. Learn this formula. In fact, if possible, find out before you begin saving for college so you’ll have funds in the most appropriate spots to qualify for the maximum amount of aid possible.
Decide How You’ll Save
Popular savings vehicles such as stocks, mutual funds, 529 plans, pre-paid plans, Roth IRA investments and savings bonds all have distinct advantages and disadvantages. The type of fund you use will play a huge role in your savings plan.
Begin the investment selection process with your time frame. For short-term savings, 529 plan (low-risk options) and savings bonds offer safety that others cannot. Long term savers may choose more aggressive options, such as stock-based mutual funds, exchange traded funds or real estate investments.
Here’s the big key: sheltering your money is every bit as important as picking the right investment. Because 529 plans, pre-paid options, a custodial account and IRAs will affect a family’s expected family contribution for college, it’s important to understand the affects of these shelters on possible aid packages once junior reaches college age. Also, many plans have penalties for early withdrawals or withdrawals for anything outside of qualified college expenses.
Writer Stephen Covey talks about picking up a stick in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He says that when you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other end. How does this apply to college savings? It’s simple: it’s every bit as important to know how you’ll withdraw money from a plan when you open it as it is to understand funding methods and available investment options.
Apply for Grants, Scholarships and Aid
Finally, you’ll want to focus on a few opportunities where you know you stand a chance of possibly finding funds to help pay college costs. Generally, people don’t just throw money at college programs. There is often something in it for the organization distributing money. By understanding what they want from the student, it’ll be much easier to secure help than by simply thinking that someone is just going to gift your son or daughter a college education.
Schools may want work-study, banks want interest on loans, companies may want a contract for your student’s work. Create a list of grants, scholarships and aid and learn the process of applying for each of these important programs. Many use a form called the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Read this form ahead of time to learn what questions will be asked.
Some universities offer financial assistance, depending on the student’s need and his or her academic potential. These students will have to fill out the FAFSA and then set up an appointment with the school’s admissions adviser to discuss potential solutions. Setting up this appointment is also a great idea to find out about scholarships and employer tuition reimbursement programs. If you are already working, speaking with your employer about helping you out with your tuition costs can’t hurt and could benefit both parties in the future if you earn your degree and stay at your current job.
Hopefully, this will help distill your successful college plan process into bite-sized morsels to attack. Clearly, there are nuances in each of these five steps. However, by breaking them down into these pieces, you’ll find that what might have seemed like a Herculean task is really a manageable process that you can navigate if you have a little patience and start right now!