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The Short Answer

Dos and Don'ts of College Savings

Knowing financial aid rules is key given the rising cost of higher education.

Note: This article is part of Morningstar's October 2013 College-Savings Boot Camp special report. An earlier version of this article appeared April 3. 

Question: I'm worried about how we're ever going to afford college for our children. What can we do to increase their odds of getting financial aid in case we can't save enough?

Answer: For many families, the cost of college has become daunting. Tuition, fees, room, and board at a public four-year school currently run $17,860 per year on average (in-state), and $39,518 per year for a private four-year school, according to the College Board. During the past decade, in-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased on average 5.2 percentage points per year beyond the rate of inflation. No wonder, then, that many parents are losing sleep worrying about how they will be able to pay for their children's college education and how much help they can expect from financial aid.

But whether college is just around the corner or years down the road for your student, there are many steps you can take to improve your odds of making it affordable, including qualifying for financial aid. Below are some ideas to help you get started. Keep in mind that some financial aid is need-based while some is not and that aid includes not just grants and scholarships, but also work-study programs and loans.

Do: Start Saving as Soon as Possible
Some parents worry that saving for college will negatively affect their student's chances for financial aid. But that's misguided, says college planning expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online guide to college funding. "There's this perception that you'd be better off not saving anything," Kantrowitz says, "but the reality is most of the financial aid you're likely to get is going to be in the form of loans, which you're better off not having to pay." 

Kantrowitz estimates that every dollar saved for college potentially reduces a student's borrowing costs by two. He suggests parents and students start saving for college as early as possible, noting that he started saving for his children to go to college before they were even born.

Kantrowitz likes 529 accounts as college-savings vehicles in part because of their tax deductibility (in some states), which he likens to "getting a discount on college costs." (You can visit Morningstar's 529 Plan Center here.)

Do: Apply for Any Scholarships for Which the Student Might Be Eligible
Applying for scholarships costs nothing but your time, and the payoff could make a big difference in reducing your out-of-pocket college costs. An obvious place to start is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the federal government's form for need-based grants, loans (both need-based and non-need-based), and work-study opportunities. Good online resources for scholarship searches include Fastweb and Kantrowitz says about one out of eight incoming freshmen at four-year colleges are on some kind of scholarship, with the average amount around $2,800 per student. "The students who win a lot of money are the ones who apply for every scholarship for which they are eligible," he says. One important tip when applying for scholarships: The more optional information you provide, the better your odds of matching. For example, if a student or parent has had cancer, including that in the student's profile helps improve his or her chances of matching one of the many scholarships related to the disease. 

Do: Have Your Kids Close Together in Age
Financial aid formulas are weighted heavily on parental income, and having multiple kids in college at the same time actually improves financial aid eligibility because it reduces the amount parents are expected to pay for each. This helps ease the burden on families having to pay two or more tuitions simultaneously. "Someone who has twins is going to get more aid than someone who has single children separated by four years," Kantrowitz says. Of course, it may be a little late to put this plan into action for most readers, but it also works if, say, a parent attends college at the same time as their child or children. Having an older child delay college to attend at the same time as a younger sibling also works.

Don't: Put Assets in the Student's Name
In financial aid calculations, assets belonging to parents have less of a negative impact than those belonging to students. So money in a 529 plan, which is considered the parents' property, counts less against financial aid than, say, money held in a custodial account such as a UGMA/UTMA, which is legally considered the student's property. One way around this problem is to spend down the student's assets before applying for aid. UGMA/UTMA funds can be used for a wide variety of qualifying expenses, so long as they are for the minor's benefit. (Read more about this issue in a previous Short Answer column here.) Incidentally, money in a 529 opened by a grandparent on behalf of a student does not count against financial aid.

Don't: Count on Your Student Getting a Full-Ride Scholarship
Expecting your child's academic or athletic brilliance to bail you out from having to pay for college? Think again. Fewer than 0.3% of students win full-ride scholarships or need-based full-ride grants, says Kantrowitz, whereas about two thirds of all undergraduates receive some kind of financial aid, including student loans.

Don't: Sell Assets the Year Before Applying for Aid
A common mistake parents make, Kantrowitz says, is to sell a large chunk of taxable investments to help pay for college the year before applying for aid. This might trigger capital gains that add to parental income and thus reduce financial aid eligibility. (Converting traditional IRA assets to a Roth can also add to taxable income, thereby hurting financial aid eligibility.) Keep in mind that students usually must reapply for financial aid each year, so holding off and waiting a year to sell might not help. It's best to plan ahead if possible by putting funds for college in a 529, where their impact on financial aid is reduced.

Other Financing Methods, With Caveats
Some parents opt to use their retirement accounts to help fund college costs. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage to this approach is that the 10% penalty for early withdrawals is waived if the money is used for qualified college expenses. Also, Roth IRA contributions might be withdrawn tax-free, though any earnings on those contributions are subject to regular income tax rates. All withdrawals from traditional IRAs are subject to regular income tax rates. The problem with this approach is that all IRA withdrawals, whether taxed or not, count as total parental income in financial aid calculations. So even though you might save on taxes or penalties by doing this, you might also make it more difficult for your student to obtain need-based financial aid.

Borrowing from work-based retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, is another option and does not affect need-based financial aid. However, the loan must be repaid within five years, and possibly immediately if you lose your job. You might be eligible for hardship withdrawals, but those are subject to income taxes and penalties.

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