Have you ever gone to bed worrying about college money? Paralyzed, gripped by the all-consuming question: “How will I pay for this?”
I can help you.
What you might not realize is that the ways to get college paid for doesn’t just involve one approach.
Often, paying for college is like a puzzle. Or a pizza.
You pay for college using lots of different sources — need-based aid, merit-based aid, outside scholarships, etc.
Well. Let’s not list it all out here. Let’s dive in and go over the puzzle pieces, one by one.
1. File the FAFSA.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you major access to scholarships and aid. You can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of your child’s senior year. The first thing you need to do is get an FSA ID for both you and your student.
You can choose any of these methods to file a FAFSA form:
Get a print-out of the FAFSA PDF by calling us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913). You can mail it in instead.
The FAFSA qualifies you for not only federal student aid, the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for certain state and college and university financial aid. Your FAFSA information is shared with the colleges and/or career schools you list on the FAFSA.
2. File the CSS Profile.
What’s the CSS Profile?
It’s one of the best ways you can get aid for college. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is a private independent survey you fill out through a nonprofit organization, the College Board. Nearly 400 universities rely on the CSS Profile to award your kid scholarships and other non-federal financial aid.
What does your child get from filing the CSS Profile? The application could help your child secure institutional scholarships as well as grants or student loans from the federal government.
What colleges accept the CSS Profile?
Great question. Check out the list of participating colleges and universities. The list includes colleges and universities that use CSS Profile as part of their financial aid processes for some or all of their financial aid applicants. Check schools’ websites or contact the institution’s financial aid office for more information.
Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, It costs $25 for the application and one report to a school. You’ll pay $16 for each additional report.
The CSS Profile gathers information about your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay for college — it takes a deeper dive into families’ finances than the FAFSA.
Note: Divorced parents must complete the CSS profile separately.
3. Explore your options for merit aid.
You’ll run into a lot of myths about aid. Let’s take a machete to these harmful myths:
My kid has to be a genius to get money from a college or university.
Students must be incredible athletes to receive money.
It takes an exhaustive search of scholarships don’t have to look any further than the college or university your child is looking into.
Did you know that there’s unlimited merit aid from schools around the country? Merit-based aid is aid not based on financial need. Instead, it’s based on items like grade point average, test scores and specific talents.
Let’s look at one school for an example. I’m going to adopt my cousin’s alma mater, St. Olaf, for a second, and show you the merit-based scholarships available there:
The Buntrock Scholarship (a renewable award of $25,000 per year) recognizes students with outstanding academic accomplishment and exemplary achievement across many facets of the high school experience.
The Presidential Scholarship (a renewable award of $23,000 per year) recognizes salutary academic achievement.
The Dean’s Scholarship (a renewable award of $21,000 per year) recognizes a strong and sustained academic achievement.
The Faculty Scholarship (a renewable award of $19,000 per year) recognizes a balanced record of consistent academic achievement.
The St. Olaf Scholarship (a renewable award of $17,000 per year) recognizes academic achievement.
What would your child have to do to get these scholarships? Fill out the Common Application and include test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation.
As you can imagine, the highest scholarship amounts get offered to top students, but the lower-tier GPA and scores still get merit scholarships. As you can see, the “lower” tier totals $17,000 per year for four years.
That’s still a whopping $68,000 over four years for the lower-tier scholarships.
My point? Find out what your child can get for merit-based aid. Merit-based aid is also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid.
4. Apply for outside scholarships.
Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.
Ask area high schools for graduation programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships, Google them and ta-dah! Your kid’s got an abundance of choices.
Contact various civic organizations. Is your next-door neighbor a Kiwanis member? Your co-worker’s husband on the zoo board?
Talk to the company you work for. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Your partner’s? Your sister’s?
Scour emails from the guidance office. Gone are the days when a printed-out list of scholarships came from the guidance office. Unfortunately, it’s much more fleeting than that. Your child could see it on an email — then, blip — it’s gone. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible.
Check social media. Social media is a great place to search for scholarships. You might join any number of Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. You can do a simple search and find scholarship groups.
Look at scholarship search engines. (I know, groan. When I was an admission counselor and offered this idea to parents, they always groaned, “There’s so many, they’re all competitive, they’re all national scholarships open to thousands of kids.”)
Don’t hastily dismiss! I suggest Googling “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! And if your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement.
Also, encourage your child to continue to apply for outside scholarships throughout college. You can find so many scholarships even while your student’s knee-deep in scholarships.
Check out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It details absolutely everything you need to know about how to track down scholarships — and win them. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System totally impresses me because she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process and get rid of waste completely. She’s the bomb!
5. Ask department heads about scholarships.
Yes! Don’t shy away from asking academic departments at schools about scholarships. Here’s how this can work:
“Dr. Fletcher, you’ve been a biology professor here at X College since 1975. You’ve got to know about some excellent scholarships in your department.”
“Why, as a matter of fact, we have three options for incoming freshmen.”
“One that would apply to my child’s deepening interest in European water voles?”
“Yes! How marvelous is this? My graduate research dabbled in voles.”
“What can we do to apply?”
“Here’s what you need to do…”
So, how can you do this if you’re not able to meet with professors in person?
Email is splendid. Communicate with these people! Build relationships! Do your best to communicate with these influential individuals ahead of time so you start to build relationships.
6. Pay for it on your own.
Remember how I mentioned that paying for college is a giant jigsaw puzzle? It’s also a subtraction problem.
Take the total cost and subtract small bits at a time to get your out-of-pocket cost at the end. It could look like this. (Note: these numbers are completely made up and geared more toward private college costs):
Total cost: $60,000
Merit-based Scholarships: $20,000
Federal subsidized loan: $3,500
Federal unsubsidized loan: $2,000
Total out-of-pocket cost: $30,500
Outside scholarships: $10,000
New out-of-pocket cost: $20,500
See how we subtracted, subtracted, subtracted from that total cost to arrive at an out-of-pocket cost?
Check out the next part to see how you can further take that $20,500 and break it down.
7. Use a tuition payment plan.
Many people underestimate a tuition payment plan — or don’t know about it in the first place. You pay for college using your own money, but break it up into monthly payments.
Let’s take that $20,500 from above and break it into a 10-month payment plan.
Breaking it into a 10-month payment plan means you’ll pay $2,050 per month.
Check out the beauty of the next section!
8. Get creative.
Next, how can you get creative to pay for that $2,050 per month? Can you ask other people to pitch in — both sets of grandparents, your child (think work-study, summer earnings) and maybe an aunt or uncle want to help.
See, what usually happens is most people fixate on the $20,050 and can’t get beyond it. (Trust me, I saw it happen all the time in the admission office.)
Or, figure out what one person will pay you to do for $10. Then, do that 10 more times.
Am I advocating for a side hustle? Maybe! But this really could be an idea for more than a side hustle. It could be your full-time job, if that’s your passion. Save for college by making more money (it’s how I save for my own kids’ 529 plans). Ask yourself this question: What would someone pay you $10 to do?
What do you do better than everyone else? Cook fried chicken? Babysit? Walk chihuahuas? Write goofy ad copy?
Do that one thing for that person, then do it 10 more times. Then do it again 10 more times. Maybe you’ll need to get help from others to help you! To be honest, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it generates recurring income.
In general, it’s a simple way to think about how you could leverage your passions and talents to save for college. Then stuff the money you make into an ESA, 529 or custodial account.
Instead, take the break-it-down approach!
9. Have your child take out loans.
Okay, this may not be what you had in mind when you Googled “ways to get college paid for”… but you know what? It’s still a way to pay for college.
Loans have their place, and while you probably don’t want your child to take out loans for the full cost of his entire four (or more!) years of college, you can still strategize to figure out how loans fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the full financial aid picture.
In other words, if your child must take out loans, do it as conservatively as possible, in this order:
Take out federal loans.
Round out as much as you can with your own money.
Take out private loans as necessary.
10. Use life insurance.
This is a slightly more morbid way to handle paying for college because you and your spouse must die in order to get it. I know. I hesitated to stick this in here but today is the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death and I decided to mention it.
If his kids had been in college when he died, my mother-in-law could have relied on his life insurance to pay for college.
I sincerely believed that during COVID-19, I’d avoid the crowds and opt for a no-exam life insurance policy. You can get a quote from Bestow and get coverage from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Choose from 10- and 20-year terms built to suit your needs.
The busy-as-a-squirrel retirement saver in me squeaks just a little bit when I suggest this option. It kind of feels like trying to say something while having my finger smashed in a drawer.
Because I really, really believe you must take care of your own retirement first before you worry about paying for college.
However, there’s no denying it: You can use your Roth IRA for both retirement and college tuition. You won’t pay withdrawal penalties with IRAs, including Roth IRAs, if the funds are used for qualified educational expenses — tuition, fees, books and room and board.
For most folks who are sending their kids off to college, only the contribution portions of their Roth IRA balances can be withdrawn tax-free. (Any earnings in the account will be taxable for those people under 59, as well as for those over 59½ who haven’t held the Roth for at least five years.)
But Roth IRAs enjoy a somewhat unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a “return of contribution” first and as earnings second.
Uh… English, please.
No problem. So, what this means is that if you’ve been contributing $4,000 per year for the past five years, you can withdraw $20,000 tax-free (as long as you use the money for tuition, fees, room, board, etc.)
What happens if your withdrawals exceed your total contributions?
They’ll be taxable for those under age 59½.
Just remember, always take care of yourself first. You can always borrow for college but you can’t borrow for retirement. If you’re a little thin on the retirement funds, be a busy squirrel and keep contributing to your Roth IRA!
Ways to Get College Paid for in Action
Don’t limit yourself or your child. So much goes into the process of learning how to pay for college.
Also — one more thing. Don’t stop figuring it out. Ever. This isn’t a process you quit as soon as your child is safely secured in his or her residence hall room on the first day of college. Keep looking for scholarships, keep side hustling, keep finding ways to make college work.
You don’t wanna do it. You’re dreading it. Almost as much as the Q4 proposal project at work. Or cleaning the garage. Or staining your broad-as-a-beach deck.
You. Just. Don’t. Want. To. Do. It.
So, how to make you feel better about the FAFSA? I wrote “Why is the FAFSA important?” the other day, then realized I didn’t dig deep into how you feel about this dreaded experience.
My bad. I spent so much time convincing you that you need to file that I forget everyone has a giant mental block about the thing.
Plus, most of this going-to-college business is so serious that it’s time to put the energy back into the college search.
Let’s try to trick your mind into thinking you’re having tons of fun! Stop saying, “But… it’s not!”
Who says the FAFSA can’t be fun?
1. Tell yourself, “It only takes 55 minutes.”
That’s the amount of time it takes to fill out the FAFSA. Just 55 minutes.
Only 55 minutes. You can do anything for 55 minutes. If you can work out for an hour (and put yourself through that torture daily — (let me tell you how much I dislike exercise!) you can file the FAFSA.
2. Do something enjoyable while you file.
Quick — what can you do while you file? Right off the top of my head:
Watch “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes (gosh, I love that show). Or, obviously, another show you find fun to watch.
Bake something that takes an hour (bread, a pie, etc.) and it’ll be doubly rewarding at the end of 55 minutes.
Self-pamper — glass of wine, mud mask, pedicure, etc. Might as well be relaxed as you sift through your 2019 tax information.
Relax in a lounge chair outside (as long as your papers won’t blow away… I swear, it’s like we live on the edge of a cliff on the edge of a violent ocean or on the top of a mountain, it’s so windy here. I’d never be able to work outside). If you can do it without chasing papers across your backyard, enjoy!
Go somewhere else. If you find it relaxing to go to the library or a coffee shop and remove yourself completely from the chaos at home, go for it.
Eat something enjoyable. Get takeout. A noodle bowl. A container of brownie cookie dough chocolate chip ice cream (that’s the kind my husband brought home the other night).
Obviously, you can’t summit one of Colorado’s fourteeners while you file the FAFSA, but why not watch your favorite movie? Slurp a mudslide?
Make it fun!
3. Get your partner or spouse on board. Or involve your child.
Okayyy, so this might not be the most relaxing idea ever. But at least you’ll have some company while you file, even if your go-to person isn’t that much help. (I keep thinking about all the moms and dads who do the FAFSA all by themselves every year. So sad!)
Make it a FAFSA date night! (LOL!)
4. Get some help.
Don’t even worry about trying to figure it out yourself. If you’ve never done it before, you can find someone at your state planning agency who can help you. (For example, if you live in Nebraska, you can have EducationQuest help you.) These agencies provide programs, tools and resources to help students and parents with all aspects of planning and preparing for the academic, social and financial aspects of life after high school.
5. Think past the gargantuan task of filing the FAFSA.
Focus on the first thing you must do first — turning on the computer, then going to the website and log in. When you start to think about the FAFSA as a whole, that’s when you might feel like you’re choking or not getting enough air.
6. Watch videos to get you geared up.
EducationQuest offers some great videos to show you how to file the FAFSA. They take you step by step through each FAFSA section. Watching them helps you realize the FAFSA is easy-peasy, pumpkin squeezy (something my seven-year-old daughter says).
After you watch the videos, just make sure you actually do the FAFSA next.
7. Think of all the scholarships and other financial aid your child will get.
Is that not motivation enough? Filing the FAFSA is the way to get the most federal money you possibly can.
And if that isn’t enough, check out the Scholarship System’s list of scholarships. It’s an excellent, comprehensive list, and the Scholarship System even has a fantastic list of scholarship websites to boot!
8. Zoom with a friend and do it together.
Chances are, you’ve got a friend who also has a child going off to college. Set up two screens — Zoom on one, FAFSA on the other. Chat happily away as you fill out the FASFA, line by line. Warning: You’ll have so much fun you won’t get done in 55 minutes.
9. Get prepared.
There’s nothing worse than scrambling for documents when you’re trying to fill something out. You’ll need a few things before you get started, including your:
FSA ID: See why it’s a major bonus to get the FSA ID ahead of time so you don’t have to wait when you’re ready to file?
Social Security numbers: You’ll need both your student’s and your own Social Security number to fill out the FAFSA form.
Driver’s license number: Don’t worry about this step if you don’t have a driver’s license number.
2019 tax records: You always work two years backward on the FAFSA. On the 2021–22 FAFSA form, you report your 2019 income information.
Untaxed income records: Gather information about child support, interest income, veterans’ non-education benefits and more. Again, you’ll need your 2019 tax information.
Assets: Gather information about your money — savings and checking account balances, stocks, bonds, secondary real estate and more.
List of schools your child may attend: Add any college (you can list up to 10!) your child is considering, even if your child hasn’t applied for it yet. The FAFSA form will automatically send your FAFSA results electronically to those schools.
10: You can speed it up! (Whew!)
Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to make the FAFSA a breeze. The DRT allows you to securely transfer original IRS tax return information using the FAFSA’s easy-to-use prompts.
Note: Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS DRT. Furthermore, the IRS DRT does not input all the financial information required on the FAFSA form. Make sure you have your 2019 tax return and 2019 IRS W-2 available as a backup.
How Else Can You Make it More Fun?
Again, do you need to fill out the FAFSA?
There’s no reason it has to be un-fun. Just do it, get it over with, submit it to those schools.
Maybe you’ll come out of the process smelling like lavender with perfectly manicured nails. Or with messy hair — because you file the FAFSA on the beach.
Oooh, friends, the FAFSA opens October 1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used to calculate something called the expected family contribution (EFC), measures a family’s financial strength and eligibility for financial aid.
Once, Mr. Donelson, my student Chris’ dad, swaggered into my office and said, “We don’t file the FAFSA. I make too much money.”
Not one to meekly say, “Okay, it’s your choice,” I took a wild gamble, knowing full well my boss would have a coronary. I said, “Sir, how close are you to retirement?” (It was a gamble because I wasn’t sure if he was actually close to retirement or not.)
“A year, tops.” (Whew.)
“How many kids do you have in college right now?” (I already knew that answer.)
“After Chris, we’ll have four in college all at the same time,” he said proudly.
“Did you know the FAFSA takes those factors, like time to retirement and kids in college, into consideration?” I asked politely.
“Hmmm,” he responded.
He filed the FAFSA and I’m happy to tell you that his son received federal aid, including work-study. He worked in our admission office as a tour guide and was a total rock star.
Why is the FAFSA important? I’m so glad you asked.
1. You’ll find hidden secrets.
Actually, these secrets — not so hidden. But you won’t know unless you file. Everyone should file the FAFSA! Even if you can fill an Olympic-sized pool with all of your $100 bills, you should file the FAFSA. As I shared with Mr. Donelson, there’s more that goes into the expected family contribution, or EFC, than just parent income.
Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) chips into the formula. Also rolled into it: Family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year.
2. Your child can qualify for federal aid.
Your child will not get federal aid if you don’t file the FAFSA. Completing this form is the only way to receive state and federal financial aid.
The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. This includes low-cost loans, grants and work-study.
3. You might have to do it for your child to qualify for other aid.
Put federal student aid to the side for a sec. The FAFSA may also determine your student’s eligibility for other forms of financial aid through the state, the college and, sometimes, private scholarships.
I mentioned this already but I think it deserves a second mention. Federal work-study is a way you can earn money while your child works a part-time on-campus job. (You may be able to get off-campus jobs as well.) Not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so ask whether colleges your child wants to attend participate.
Colleges offer a specific amount of funds to each eligible student. Students receive money based on the hours they work, very similar to other hourly jobs.
5. You might have to do it anyway.
Depending on where your child goes to school, completing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for high school graduation. Check with your student’s guidance counselor for more information.
6. Most students qualify for federal loans.
Never, ever, ever, ever EVER take out private student loans before federal loans. Private loans have high interest rates and lack the consumer protections that federal student loans include.
The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 47 percent of private loan borrowers could have used more affordable federal loans. By completing the FAFSA form, you can make sure your student takes advantage of the best student loan options.
7. You don’t have to accept all aid.
Completing the FAFSA does not obligate your child to accept student loans or any other form of financial aid. So, for example, let’s say your child gets:
Federal student loans
You and your child can decide you want the scholarships and grants (free money) but don’t want the federal student loans (must be repaid).
Many families think they have to take everything the student gets awarded — but that’s just not true!
8. Your child may leave money on the table.
Take a wild guess at the percentage of high school graduates who completed the FAFSA in 2014.
Only 44 percent.
All that money — unused! It means billions of dollars left on the table.
9. Situations change.
What happens if you experience a change in income? You’ll be glad you filed.
Situations change. Unfortunately, jobs get lost, people pass away, etc. Your financial situations can change. Remember, you can always appeal for more aid every year.
Just because your student doesn’t receive financial aid one year doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get it another year.
10. It’s free.
Note the “Free” in “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It costs exactly no money to apply, and more importantly, you don’t have to pay anything to find out whether your child is eligible for federal aid.
11. It’s easy.
It’s no longer the behemoth it once was. (I remember my dad spending hours hunched over the paper version when I was in college.) Now, it takes just 55 minutes to fill it out. That’s less than the time it takes to order and eat a pizza. That’s less than an entire Netflix episode.
12. You can gather just a few materials to fill it out.
What materials should I gather in advance before starting the FAFSA?
Social Security Number for both parents and students.
Both parents and students need this information for the FAFSA form.
Driver’s license number (if you have one).
Your 2019 tax records for the 2021–22 FAFSA form. You report your 2019 income information on this year’s form.
Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans’ non-education benefits.
Your assets (money) from savings and checking account balances, investments and real estate, though you don’t include your primary residence.
List of the school(s) on your child’s list. Add any college your child’s considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA.
13. It (could) ensure your child goes to college.
Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, versus only 55 percent who don’t complete the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN).
14. You can fill it out early — then relax.
Fill it out as soon as possible! Even if you don’t know which school you plan to attend. You can always add various schools’ FAFSA code to your already-filled out FAFSA as the year progresses. So, let’s say you file the FAFSA on October 1. You add three schools that you want the FAFSA to be sent to, then you become interested in another school in November. You can log back in and have it sent to that school as well.
It’s also okay to add a school to the FAFSA that you decide later on that you won’t apply for.
15. It helps schools that also require the CSS profile to understand your full financial picture.
What’s the diff between the FAFSA and CSS Profile? The FAFSA awards families with federal grants, scholarships and student loans, while the CSS helps schools award non-federal institutional aid.
Filling out the CSS Profile does not take the place of the FAFSA. Rather, it is an additional application for non-federal financial aid.
Schools that require the CSS typically meet 90 to 100 percent of family need and package their financial aid with institutional grant money.
The CSS has some significant differences from the FAFSA, in particular the way it calculates certain assets.
The FAFSA considers cash gifts as a part of parents’ total assets.
FAFSA looks strictly at numbers such as income and family size, so families must discuss personal situations and hardships directly with schools.
The CSS counts cash gifts as parental income, which decreases a dependent student’s eligibility for aid.
The CSS takes a closer look at family finances than the FAFSA does.
The CSS evaluates a family’s medical bills and school costs for younger children, among other factors, to determine a family’s expected contribution.
For some students, this could mean more financial aid opportunities are available through the CSS.
You Want the Best Shot Possible
The FAFSA is important, even if you’re not sure what will come of it. File it anyway. You don’t want to be wondering “what could have been.”
The FAFSA gives your child the best possible chance of receiving federal aid. Don’t leave money on the table. Like Mr. Donelson, it might make you wonder why you ever doubted it in the first place.
I’m in awe of the things my parents say to my kids: “Sure, you can do/have/play with/buy that! And here’s an ice cream cone. And $50. Oh, and a kitten.”
I find myself wondering, “Where was that generosity when I was a kid?”
Then I remember: Oh, yeah, at my grandparents’ house.
Your parents (your kids’ grandparents) may want to help you save for college.
Bravo for them! The only thing is, they may have very specific ideas on how they want to do it — which might not be the most advantageous to your child or the best option, tax-wise.
Let’s go through a few ways grandparents can help!
How Grandparents Can Help Save for College
Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.
1: Start a conversation.
The first step: Always start with a family conversation.
I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.)
Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:
Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously.
You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college.
Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.
2: Discuss specific vehicles.
Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.
Talk About 529 Plans
What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)
Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:
Other educational expenses
Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.
Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion.
Consider UGMAs or UTMAs
Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws.
The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone.
Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.
Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)
Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.
Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.
Talk about Coverdell ESAs
A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.
Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.
Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.
Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.
3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.
“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.”
You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!”
Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.
4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.
The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses.
Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.
5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away.
Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?
As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.
If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.
A Sweet Gesture
Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.
The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.
September is College Savings Month! Saving for college can seem like one of those long, arduous tasks that never ends… like figuring out what to make for dinner for the rest of your life, perpetual laundry, etc.
I know there are a couple of fears out there when it comes to saving for college. They’re super real, and it would be silly not to address them.
Some common fears stop us from saving for college. Let’s address these so you can jump right in and start saving.
1. The Fear of Believing You Won’t Save Enough
Are you worried that you’ll never be able to save enough? Do your eyes get wider and wider every year as college costs rise? Worries about not being able to save enough may be enough to stop you before you even get going.
Here’s the deal. You may not be able to save enough money to pay for every penny of your child’s college education — I get how it can get you down before you even start.
However, here are some quick reminders:
Your child may qualify for merit-based scholarships.
You can take advantage of a tuition installment plan. (Don’t forget how much purchasing power your monthly income has!)
The sticker price is just a starting point. I don’t know a single student who paid the full sticker price to attend our institution when I worked in admission.
Price transparency may continue over time. A handful of schools have started to reduce their costs using something called a tuition reset. It attempts to offer more transparency in the college cost landscape. Check out an article I wrote about tuition resets for the “Journal of College Admission” and what they mean.
Colleges may be getting more creative in the pandemic’s wake. For example, check out Unity College’s new Distance Education and Hybrid Learning plan, where students can choose to take only one or two courses per term to be full-time and can choose online, in-person or a combination of both.
Federal financial aid is usually easy to get.
Bottom line, try to save as much as you can, even if it’s just a little bit.
2. The Fear of Getting it Wrong
It’s hard to start something new. It’s even tougher when you think you might get it all wrong. So what do we sometimes do? That’s right — never even start.
How do you get over the fear of doing something big in your life?
That’s right — you just take a deep breath and do it.
For the longest time, I was afraid of planting a garden. I wasn’t sure how to do it, despite the fact that I grew up helping my parents pick green beans. My parents always planted a vegetable garden (they still do!) — full of delicious zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn and more. You know, though, when you’re a kid, you don’t really pay attention to allll the details — how to plant the seeds, when to plant them, how to make the rows and more. Plus, I was worried about whether or not I’d have time to keep up with the weeds.
But one spring, I said, “Enough is enough. We’re going to have a garden!” My husband and I took the plunge, tried it, and we’ve had a garden for two years now. No more excuses!
Did we fail? Yeah — our tomatoes didn’t grow the first year. I think we ended up with only six pea pods. But we got better the next year! Our tomatoes are flourishing right now and we have more than we could ever eat. We’ve had to give oodles away to the neighbors!
Even if you don’t get quite started the way you want on your college savings plan, you can pivot. The point is, get started and go from there.
Fortunately, many college savings plans (like 529s) you can enter your risk tolerance, child’s age and your investment gets more conservative naturally. In most cases, it’s impossible to mess it up!
3. The Fear of Thinking You’re Behind
Has your best friend been saving for college for 18 years — before her child was even born? And you haven’t been able to save that much all?
Your child is more likely to go to college if you’ve saved just a little bit. Even with savings of less than $500, a child is 25% more likely to enroll in college and 64% more likely to graduate compared to a student with no savings, according to a study from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).
4. Thinking You Don’t Have Enough on Hand to Save
Worried about not having extra cash to plump up a college savings account? What if, instead of agonizing over this, think of it as the fun part. How creative can you get?
Can you manipulate your budget?
Sit down and divide your expenses into “needs” and “wants.” “Needs” should only include those necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and school supplies.
Anything else that isn’t an essential expense should be put into your “want” category. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and nice clothes that aren’t required for a job.
Can you make more money?
What if you made some spare cash every month and vowed to dedicate this to college savings? Do you have a specific talent or skillset?
What is the best thing that you can charge $10 for? Do that, then do it 10 more times! Can you make crochet hats? Can you sell your PR skills? Make birthday cakes? Babysit? Serve as a sales consultant? Figure out what it is that you can do so well that someone else will pay you money to do it.
My friend Angela makes these gorgeous signs for her company, Touch of Twine Design. They are so beautiful. They’re white with a beautiful script font — and can say anything. Her customers order inspirational quotes, poem snippets, Bible verses — whatever they want. The money she makes goes into a college account for her two boys.
Another couple I know scavenged pallets on the side of the road, at work at a manufacturing facility and more to make furniture, sold it online and made a lot of money.
The sky’s the limit. What talent can you offer the world?
5. Not Knowing How to Save
It’s a case of too many options, isn’t it? You can invest in regular savings accounts, CDs, 529 plans, UTMA/UGMAs, Roth IRAs, custodial accounts, and on and on.
I LOVE all of these for different reasons, but I really recommend checking out UNest. It’ll give you a quick win right away! It offers a tax-advantaged savings plan option based on your risk tolerance and age of your child.
Can you invest in stocks for college? Sure! Just like you can invest in regular mutual funds, bonds and more investing options we’ve listed.
However, the advantage of investing with UNest or any 529 plan is that you get tax benefits.
Is this your only option? Of course not!
A stock is an investment in a specific company. You buy one share of a company’s earnings and assets when you buy a stock. Companies sell shares of stock in their businesses to raise cash. You can sell stocks when they increase in value and this method can also result in high returns.
You lend money to a company or government when you buy a bond. Your bond purchase allows the bond issuer to borrow your money and pay you back with interest.
Bonds offer lower returns but do come with the risk that the bond issuer could default on its payments. (However, bonds are typically very safe investments.) Government bonds are the safest investment because they’re backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government.
Mutual funds are bundles of stocks, bonds and other investments. You can purchase a large number of these types of investments in one transaction. You pay a professional manager to invest your money. It’s typically more expensive to buy mutual funds than stocks or bonds because you pay a middleman to manage that money.
An index fund is a type of mutual fund — but there’s a difference. An index fund passively tracks an index. This means you don’t pay a money manager to pick and choose investments for you. For example, all S&P 500 index funds follow the performance of the S&P 500 by holding company stock within that index.
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are also a type of index fund because they also track an index. Like index funds, they are not actively managed and less expensive than mutual funds.
The difference between index funds and ETFs is that ETFs trade on an exchange like a stock — you can buy or sell throughout the trading day as the price fluctuates. Mutual funds and index funds, on the other hand, are priced once at the end of each trading day.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
When you buy a certificate of deposit (CD), you give your financial institution money for a specific time period. When that time period is over, you get the amount you originally invested, plus a prespecified amount of interest. The longer the loan period, the higher your interest rate. Note that you’ll have to pay penalties if you take your money out sooner.
How do you invest in any one of these types of investments?
Go to an insured financial institution like a bank or credit union for a CD or government bond.
You can go to a financial advisor for a mutual fund.
You can find mutual funds, index funds or ETFs through a discount broker like Robinhood or a large broker like Vanguard.
Just remember, investing in a 529 plan offers more tax benefits for approved educational expenses — but a 529 plan isn’t your only option.
6. Fear of Future College Costs
Ahhhh… This is a tough one. Use a college calculator like the College Board’s College Cost Calculator to determine how much it may cost to send your child to college for four years. I plugged in some numbers and it informed me that in 11 years, it’ll cost me over $311,000 to send my child to college.
I understand the the numbers look scary. However, I still come back to this:
Merit-based scholarships take care of a chunk of the costs.
Not everyone needs to (or should) shop for a top-name school. You can still find lots of high-quality colleges and universities among the elites.
Gems glisten everywhere. Don’t discount the liberal arts college down the street because it may be able to offer a connection that you can’t find anywhere else.
A Stanford study says “fit” is more important than rankings. I really do believe too many students and families rely on college rankings published by well-known organizations to define quality. The higher the ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your child. The study found that the “metrics used in these rankings are weighted arbitrarily and are not accurate indicators of a college’s quality or positive outcomes for students.”
Do I even need to write any more?
I chatted with Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling, and she told me a great story.
“Several years ago I had a straight-A student with strong test scores and interesting extracurricular activities who was a bit lacking in self-confidence. She felt strongly that she should attend a college where she would be the ‘big fish in a little pond’ instead of the ‘little fish in a big pond.’ It was very important to her that she choose an institution where she would be at the top and be recognized as a superstar.
She set her sights on a public university with a 70% acceptance rate. She did apply to other colleges, including those that are much more selective, and was actually accepted into every school she applied to. However, she stuck with her plan to attend the public university.
She SOARED there. She was at the top of her class, where she won all sorts of awards. She is well-known at the school, and they’ve asked her to assume all sorts of leadership roles. She has made mini-promotional films for the school, and now, as a recent alumna, they’ve asked her back to speak multiple times.
In this case, she didn’t feel up to attending a highly selective university where the competition would be fierce. Instead, she decided to choose a school that isn’t overly competitive and where she would stand out. It paid off with lots of internships and job offers, and it built her confidence.”
Yessss! This is exactly what I’m talking about.
Best Reasons to Look for a Non-Selective or Moderately Selective College
Most people think the only reason your child would want to look for a non-selective college is because you couldn’t hack it due to poor academic achievement. Not so. There are lots of great reasons to opt for a less-selective institution.
1. Your Child May Be More Likely to Get In
Obviously, the fact that your child can get in is one of the reasons to apply to non-selective colleges.
How do you find out whether a college is selective or not? Take a look at its admission requirements. Most colleges list their admission requirements, which may look something like this:
Graduate from an accredited high school or equivalent by the time of enrollment.
Rank in the upper half of your high school graduating class.
Have ACT or SAT-I scores high enough to predict probable success. Note: ACT and SAT test scores may not be required if you’re applying for admission right now. Many colleges do not want to place undue hardships on students who cannot take the ACT or SAT due to closed testing locations.
English: Four years, including literature
Math: Two or more years, including algebra, advanced algebra and geometry
Social studies: Three or more years, including American and European history
Sciences: Two or more years of lab science
Foreign language: Two or more years
That may be the extent of a college’s requirements! You can also call an admission counselor for more information about specific college selectivity.
2. Your Child Will Still Take Rigorous Classes
Make no mistake — it’s a challenge to get through organic chemistry at just about any college or university. Lower selectivity institutions definitely offer rigorous coursework.
Just because your child’s valedictorian of her high school class or achieved a 34 ACT doesn’t mean that she won’t feel challenged at a lower selectivity institution.
Some less selective colleges let academically talented students work with faculty on research projects as well.
Students at lower selectivity institutions may also receive more personalized attention from staff.
Some lower selectivity institutions smaller classroom size with hands-on teaching may be more conducive to learning than a large lecture hall format.
You may get to know classmates and faculty closely and form lasting personal or professional relationships.
You child may get more opportunities to work on projects, connect to internships through faculty and gain valuable job experience.
3. Your Family May Experience More Personalization During the Admission Process
Less selective schools must work a little harder for their students. That means you and your child reap the benefits. In other words, highly selective colleges and universities don’t have to work nearly as hard to recruit students — they naturally come to them. That means that less selective institutions must do the hard work of calling, emailing, texting and even engaging students on social media.
You’re more likely to get one-on-one attention from an admission counselor who must carefully work through an application list. As an admission counselor, it was my job to personalize the admission process as much as possible. I would try to learn:
Other schools on their list
Their favorite things (we once sent a box of Wheaties to a student because we knew it was his favorite cereal!)
Connections they’d already made with others at the college
About their families and friends
Anything else I could think of!
We made the college search process a personalized experience — and that might just happen if you’re looking into a less selective institution.
4. The College Application Process is Less Strenuous
Chances are, your child won’t have to worry about a complicated application process if he or she is looking at a less selective institution. Here’s a quick overview.
Regular admission means your child can apply to as many colleges as possible. An application submission deadline varies between institutions. Regular admission deadlines typically fall in early January and admission offers get sent out in late March or early April. Your student has until May 1 to either accept or decline admission offers. (Your child may not encounter this type of admission, either.)
When I was an admission counselor, our college used rolling admission. Rolling admission means a college releases admission decisions regularly instead of sending them all out on one target date.
An admission committee will only review your child’s application as soon as all required information is in. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly. (Students learned of an admission decision within two weeks at our college!)
Rolling admission decisions are non-binding. This means that your child will not be required to attend that school and will not need to make a decision until May 1, which is National Candidate Reply Day.
Open admission means a college accepts any high school graduate (no matter what those grades look like) until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Two-year community colleges immediately come to mind — most community colleges have a two-year open admission policy. Note that a college with a general open admission policy may have certain admission requirements for specific programs.
Your child probably won’t encounter these types of admission at lower selectivity institutions:
Early Action (EA), which means your student has the option to submit an application before the regular deadline. Early action plans are not binding, which means that your child is not required to attend.
Early Decision (ED) means your child can submit an application to his or her first-choice college before the regular deadline and get an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding, which means your child must attend that institution.
Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action means your child is not required to attend if accepted. However, if using this method, your child may not apply to any other school during the early action period only.
5. Lower Costs
You’ll typically find lower selectivity institutions in areas that also include lower costs of living (not big urban areas). The savings on rent and tuition might be worth it.
Your child may be able to get an academic scholarship. Many colleges give half or full-tuition academic scholarships to students who have a very good high school GPA, ACT or SAT scores and class rank. The most selective colleges will not award your child a merit scholarship.
“We had a student who wanted to study business. Although she was accepted at multiple selective programs, she chose to study at Bentley University (45-50% acceptance rate), where they placed her into the honors program, provided her with a large scholarship, and of course, she received all the perks that came along with the honors program. She loved feeling like she was the top of the class!” says Kopp Weingarten.
Kopp Weingarten also said, “We also had a student who chose a large public university in the Midwest where she could use her AP credits to get advanced standing, basically entering as a sophomore. She graduated in three years, saved tons of money and was accepted into a top-tier Ph.D. program.”
6. College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Indicator of Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being
The Stanford study found no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction or well-being. Furthermore, the study found only modest financial benefits of attending more selective colleges — and that applied to first-generation and other underserved students.
Individual student characteristics (background, major, ambition) may make more of a difference in terms of post-college outcomes than the institutions themselves.
7. Learning Engagement is Most Important
Students’ learning among a campus community may offer the key to positive outcomes after college, according to the Stanford study. For instance:
Students participate in service learning and thrive when they apply what they learn in the classroom to real life settings.
Students are successful when mentors at the college encourage them to pursue personal goals.
Those who are successful after college engage in multi-semester projects.
8. Grades May Be Higher
Your child may be more likely to graduate with honors at a less selective institution.
“When students apply to medical school, the two most important aspects of their applications are their GPA and their MCATs,” says Kopp Weingarten. “We had a student who felt it might be difficult to maintain a high GPA at a highly competitive college where everyone was aiming for ‘A’ grades. He chose to attend a college where he felt he could keep his GPA high due to the lower competition at the school. Due to the fact that he was at the top of their admit pile, he received a huge scholarship and only paid about $10,000 a year for a private college. It worked out for him because he graduated with a near-perfect GPA and was accepted into medical school. He then had the money he saved to put toward paying for medical school.”
Think Carefully About College Selectivity
The main drawback of graduating from a less selective college is brand recognition. However, there are other things to think about, such as whether your child actually ends up graduating. Plus, if your child plans to go to graduate school, nobody cares where he or she goes for an undergraduate education.
Colleges with higher selectivity are also much more likely to graduate students than those with lower selectivity. However, once your child does graduate, there’s little difference in life outcomes, as the Stanford study suggests.
“Sometimes, the most highly selective schools can open the door for a candidate (job or graduate school). But what really matters is how well the student performs at the school they are at. The school doesn’t make the student successful — it’s up to the student to do that on their own,” says Kopp Weingarten.
Tip: Check the financial solvency of institutions your child is interested in (particularly those small private colleges that were already in trouble before the pandemic). Some have already closed. Attending a lower selectivity public school is less of a risk because if those institutions close, students will still be a part of the state system.