It’s not too late to plan for college

Families know they should plan for college. They know it’s going to cost them a significant sum, and most realize this significant sum could largely impact their future financial plans and goals.

Still, many families find themselves up against it when it comes to planning for college. For many, it can be an overwhelming burden, thinking of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that this process can require. This often results in families feeling anxious and, in some cases, essentially throwing up their hands and saying it will be what it will be.

As is always the case when it comes to planning for anything, the earlier you get started the better. However, this doesn’t mean that you reach a point and it’s too late. Perhaps it can be too late to put money into a college savings vehicle, but there are other ways families can strategically plan to put themselves in the best position when it comes to applying for financial aid.

This is the case not only for those with children in middle school, but also for those with children in high school. In fact, you can make changes that will improve your financial aid eligibility all the way up to the point that you are filling out your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile, which is the senior year of high school.

Again, while it’s always preferred that the planning process begins as early as possible, this doesn’t preclude beneficial planning from happen even with students in high school. Here are some things to consider:

1)      Don’t be fooled by the sticker price.

It’s well known that the average cost of college has skyrocketed over the past decade-plus. It’s not uncommon to see schools with yearly price tags in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. This unfortunately leads families to rule out these schools that otherwise could be a great fit socially and academically just based on the price tag. It also leads families to turn to less expensive state and public schools with yearly prices in the seemingly more reasonable $20,000 to $30,000 range.

I will preface the next few sentences by saying that I NEVER encourage families to take on something that doesn’t make sense for them financially. I don’t believe everyone can afford paying $60,000 or even $20,000 out of pocket annually, and I also don’t believe it makes sense in all cases for students and families to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to finance the college experience.

That being said, I hate to see families rule out schools simply based on the sticker price.

If you think that everyone attending an expensive private school is coming from a family that has the ability to pay the $20,000 to $30,000 gap out of pocket you’re wrong. What is important to know is schools that are more expensive tend to have resources available in the form of merit- and need-based aid to bridge the cost gap. Public and state schools do not have these same resources available. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see the actual out-of-pocket expense and eventual cost of public and private schools being nearly equal.

2)      Know what is impacting your financial aid eligibility.

Again, after a point families may not be able to catch up with their college savings. If you’re a family with a junior in high school then there is only so much you can put away for the pending cost. I get this.

However, there are opportunities for you to organize your finances to maximize your financial aid eligibility all the way up to the point of filling out the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile.

Before you can realize these opportunities, you will need to meet with someone that is aware of what impacts your financial aid eligibility and what doesn’t. There are programs and specialists, myself included, who can mirror financial aid forms such as the FAFSA and CSS Profile in order to show families how their family contribution, often known as EFC, is determined. From that point families often have options and can be presented ways in which they can maximize their financial aid eligibility.

What I am referring to is different than working with someone in the financial services industry who can help you shelter money by moving it from one place to the other, often times having money end up in a new financial vehicle that provides the individual commission. What I am referring to is working with someone who knows the ins and outs of financial aid and can let you know what is impacting your financial aid eligibility. There is a big difference in the service provided, which in almost all cases leads to very different results.

3)      Planning is required even if you don’t qualify for financial aid.

I meet with a lot of families who do not believe they will qualify for financial aid. In some cases they are correct. However, they won’t know that for sure unless they go through a process as described above in which they determine their EFC. While families with this mindset don’t usually qualify for the State or Federal Grant programs, they are often surprised to find that they do qualify for some portion of need-based aid extended by private schools.

All incoming freshman qualify for financial aid. While this aid may not be in the form of need-based grants or merit-based scholarships that don’t need to be paid back, there is aid available simply for completing the FAFSA; Direct Student Loans. This isn’t something that everyone is aware of. You can check out my blog (http://financialaidcoach.com/federal-direct-student-loans-2014-15-interest-rates/) to learn more about Direct Student Loans.

Even if parents or grandparents are planning on paying for college costs out of pocket or through other means, it is important to speak with financial professionals who can help guide you through the pros and cons when it comes to the potential impact on retirement and the opportunities for tax savings.

As an overview, know that until you are filling out the FAFSA or CSS Profile it is not too late for college planning. Know that there are resources available to help you through this process.

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