This is our third annual College Financial Aid Year End Planning blog. Our goal is to help families make financial adjustments before the end of year and put better plans in place for next year specifically in the college funding and student loan area.
As college costs continue to rise, families are looking for various ways to save money and lower the cost of college. Many families spend hours searching the web to find private scholarships that may help them lower their out of pocket cost. These same families often overlook thousands of dollars per year due to their lack of financial literacy in the area of college funding strategies and the student loan process. This college financial literacy problem is found among families and financial professionals. Many of us assume that our CPA or financial professional understand the various strategies but that is not always the case.
Listed below are financial aid and college funding strategies that can be put into place to help maximize your family resources. Our lives are full of financial changes that need to be reviewed each year. A simple contribution to a retirement account or health saving account could help a family maximize a $2,500 tax credit per child. Many of these college financial aid year-end planning strategies are not addressed by the college financial aid office since these are personal financial planning strategies. Many families do not realize that the college financial aid officers cannot explain all of the ways to pay for college since they are unable to provide personal financial advice.
To properly pay for college, parents and advisors must understand: the financial aid process, college saving plans, educational tax credits, student loans and student loan repayment. This lack of college planning and transparency has resulted in student debt doubling since 2009. Here is a list of ideas that are often overlooked that you may find helpful for both maximizing 2017 and creating a better plan for 2018.
Financial Aid Positioning (Prior Prior Planning)
One of the first things, parents and students need to understand is their financial aid position. The financial term for this is your EFC or Expected Family Contribution. There are two methods of this calculation: Federal and Institutional. The Federal EFC is determined by completing the FAFSA form and for the Institutional EFC; the most common method is the CSS Profile.
For most families, the biggest part of their EFC is their income which is driven from your tax information on both the 1040 and W2 forms. An important aspect of this planning is often overlooked since the tax year and school year do not match. To maximize your positioning, this needs to reviewed before 12/31 of your child’s sophomore year in high school.
2017 High School FAFSA Prior Prior Planning Calendar
Financial aid position planning is somewhat disconnected from the application process due to a relatively new term called Prior Prior. The goal of the Prior Prior FAFSA change was to simplify the process and add more transparency. Under this change, families will have their taxes completed when completing the FAFSA. It makes the FAFSA completion easier and less stressful in comparison to when the prior tax year was used.
As an example, a current senior, completing the financial aid form will be using 2016 income tax information for financial aid year 2018-19. The first year financial aid submission is called your base year and it is very important. The cart below will help high school parents better understand the timing of financial aid and the tax year used.
Income Taxes and Financial Aid
As stated above, a family’s income and taxes paid are the biggest component of their EFC. Most parents are trying to save for retirement and reduce their taxes. The most common strategy is to contribute to a tax deferral program such as an IRA, 401k or 403b.
There is a down side to this on the years that you file for financial aid. Contributions to tax deferral programs are added back in as income for the financial aid calculations. Depending on a family’s income, this deferred income could be weighed in the EFC calculation up to 47%. Review the above timing chart so that you can better understand the timing of these contributions on your financial aid position. For some parents, this will be a difficult decision. They will need to weigh the long-term tax defer benefits versus the cash flow advantages of not making the contributions.
Estimating your EFC
To evaluate your financial aid position, a family will need to calculate their EFC or Expected Family Contribution. Most people believe it is one number. In reality, it is four separate calculations that are summed to one number. They are Parent’s Income, Parent’s Assets, Student’s Income and Student Assets.
By understanding your EFC at each college, families will be able to determine if they will be eligible for need based financial aid. EFC PLUS has a free estimating EFC calculator on our website to help you in this process. Understanding your EFC number is the starting point to any college financial plan.
A big myth in college financial aid positioning is to have no assets in the child’s name. That is not always true and is the reason a family needs to understand the details of their EFC. To make that decision, a family needs to understand the parent components of their EFC calculation and the cost of attendance (COA) for each college on the student’s list. In some cases, you may be putting assets in the child’s name to maximize tax savings.
If the parent’s portion of the EFC is greater than the COA then the student assets will have no effect on qualifying for need-based financial aid. The student may still qualify for merit-based money depending on their application strength for that college. If you have the details of the parent’s part of the EFC calculation then you are able to complete the full analysis.
Here is an example of knowing your numbers and the common myth of taking all of the assets out of the student’s name. It is illustrated with the number below.
Parent’s Income EFC value: 25,000
Parent’s Assets EFC value: 12,000
Parent’s EFC value: 37,000
Student’s Income EFC value: 1,500
Student’s Assets EFC value: 1,600
Student EFC value: 3,100
Family’s Total EFC: 40,100
College 1 – COA: 31,000
No need- based aid
Moving student’s assets will have no impact. Parent EFC of 37,000 is greater than College 1 COA- 31,000.
College 2 – COA: 55,000
Qualify for 14,900 of need-based aid
Moving student’s assets will have an impact. Parent EFC of 37,000 is less than College 2 COA- 55,000. This will decrease their total EFC by $1,152 if the student’s assets liquidated and reported as a parent’s asset.
Before liquidating any assets, you need to review this with your tax and financial advisor. There are legal and tax regulation that you could trigger. These triggers may work against you. As an example, the “Kiddie Tax Law” requires a student who has unearned gains over $2,100 to be taxed at their parents rate. This could be as high as 20% versus a tax-free gain of zero if managed and liquidated correctly.
Prior Prior Impact on College Students
The Prior Prior change also affects the financial planning position for the current college students. As stated above, the tax year and school year do not match. This tax year change in the FAFSA process could work to the advantage of the current college student. The assumption is that the child will graduate in four years.
Under the Prior Prior rules, the last tax year needed for the FAFSA documentation is the tax year that ends during the first semester of the college sophomore year. The forward move of the tax year helps the family in the back end years while their child is in college. This is true only for full time students who will graduate in four years. If the student will be extending their undergraduate studies or is a part time student, additional planning will be needed.
Students who are enrolled in the five year combined programs are also affected. Once a student has their first Bachelor’s degree, they become an independent student and their parent’s information is not required for the FAFSA submission. This timing varies program by program.
This timing change is especially important when grandparent’s 529 plans are being used to help pay for college or the student is planning for a well-paid co-op or internship position. If the student qualifies for need based financial aid, both grandparent’s 529 distributed money and paid wages are considered student income. Both of these incomes will be included in the student’s income section of the EFC calculation. It may raise their EFC number and would reduce their need-based financial aid. By delaying both of these events, the need-based financial aid would not be affected.
Another timing example is liquidating of stock options. If you are able to delay the liquidation of stock option to pay for college, it may have little to no impact beginning in the second semester of their sophomore year in college. This assumes the student is graduating on time and there are no other children.
If you have multiple children who will be attending college, creating a family timeline will be helpful so you can see the overlaps but even more important which tax years will impact your EFC.
529 Plan Review
A common goal for many families is to start a college saving plan for their children or grandchildren. If this was a goal for 2017 or is a goal for next year, you may want to do it before December 31 of this year. Many states offer income tax deductions for contribution to a 529 savings plan. This is a reason to look at your state’s plan before you look somewhere else.
Currently, 32 states offer some type of state income tax incentives. Many of these require a family to use the in-state 529 college saving program. There are 6 states that do not require the contribution to be to in-state 529 plans. These states are Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania.
Often overlooked are these tax incentives for the current college student. In most cases, contribution to a 529 plan while the student is still in college can offer some additional tax benefits depending on the state and plan. Most people think 529 plans are only a pre-college opportunity. Using the state income incentives can add up to thousands of dollars over the multiple years, depending on the state. A 529 plan could enhance a family’s tax deductions and college saving opportunities, each year.
If you have relatives that want to help, having the knowledge between the different state plans can work to your advantage. This could allow the donor to compare states plans and maybe open the plan in their state of residency or gift the parent the money, if their state offers a better option. The donor should consider other factors such as the financial aid impact and asset control.
It is important to realize that these tax deductions follow a calendar tax year and do not have an extended date link to an IRA contribution. To get the state income deduction, it must be done before December 31.
American Opportunity Credit and Other Income Tax Incentives
Timing is everything in proper tax planning. Just the simple task of when you paid a tuition bill can make or break your ability to take advantage of an earned tax credit.
Many of these tax savings are often not properly planned since we do not think about our taxes until after the first of the year. As college funding has become more complex, it may be important for families to review their year-end situation with their tax advisor prior to 12/31. This will minimize the risk of forfeiting some of the educational tax incentives.
A good example is The American Opportunity Credit. Many families will use their 529 plan money to pay college bills. This would include tuition, fees, room, board, and books. These are all qualified expenses that 529 can be used to pay. If a family is able to pay these costs with only 529 money, the family may be forfeiting a $2,500 tax credit. Under current tax rules, you are unable to use the same qualified expenses for multiple tax incentives. In other words, if I paid the tuition with 529 money, I am unable to reuse that same tuition expense to qualify for the American Opportunity Credit.
To qualify for the American Opportunity Credit, the income criteria must be under $90,000 if filing Single or Head of Household and under $180,000 if filing a Married return. To receive the maximum credit of $2,500 then the Single and Head of Household’s Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) must be under $80,000 and for the married filer it is $160,000 AGI limit. In addition, only certain qualified expenses can be used. These are tuition, fees and books.
If a family has paid all of the qualified expenses using 529 money and feel they qualified for this credit, you could move up your payments for an upcoming semester. The amount to be paid will need to be $4,000 of the qualified expenses listed above to fully take advantage of this credit. It must be paid by December 31.
The new tax proposal may eliminate some of the current tax strategies. These include the Hope Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and student loan interest deductions. They are still available for tax year 2017 but may not exist starting in 2018.
A review of how you paid your college expenses with which funds is recommended.
Student Loan Plan
A missing piece of the college financial process is projecting the amount of student debt at graduation. Colleges only provide financial information one year at a time. As college costs continue to rise, more families need to finance a larger portion of that expense. The problem with the current system and borrowing options is not being able to envision the monthly payments after graduation.
I have written various articles on ways to avoid excessive student debt and the financial consequences of student loans, all a reflection of the debt crisis facing our young adults and families. The year-end maybe a great time to review what debt has been incurred and what the future looks like for your child currently in college. Our new EFC PLUS In-College calculator helps students and parents understand their financial future by gathering the current debt and projecting the debt needed till graduation. It will then calculate all of the loan repayment options and build a personal budget. As more students change majors and transfer, being able to see the financial consequence could be very helpful.
As pointed out at the beginning of this article, student debt has doubled since 2009. It is a growing concern for our children’s financial future. There are various studies identifying student debt as a reason for delays in home purchases, getting married and starting a family to name a few.
To review your federal student loans, the student and parent will need their FSA ID. First, you need to log onto the National Student Loan Database System (https://www.nslds.ed.gov/npas/index.htm ) (NSLDS.ed.gov). Then enter your FSA ID. Both your student loans and federal grants will be listed. For parents with Parent PLUS loans, these will be listed under the parent’s FSA ID.
The importance of understanding the student loan structure is critical. The type of student loans used to finance a college education will dictate what loan repayment and forgiveness options that the student will have in repayment. Many parents do not realize that by co-signing for a student loan or taking a Parent Plus loan, they are legally directly or indirectly responsible for that debt. The loan co-signer has the same financial responsibility as the student. If the student defaults, this may affect the parent’s credit score and their ability to borrow other money.
As you can see, paying for college has become much more complex. By being proactive and looking beyond the financial aid process, families can save thousands of dollars in college costs.
Our company goal is to help students and parents make better college financial decisions. We hope this blog, our webinars and software can provide the transparency needed to prevent and solve the student debt crisis facing many families. Our approach is to simplify the college process so that student can envision their financial future and not be burden later with unexpected, excessive student debt.