How to save if college is not a sure thing

Saving for college is usually one of those just-plain-good-sense things to do, not unlike exercising or reducing your midnight servings of Oreos. And the prevailing wisdom from every reputable college financial planner I’ve come across is to save that money in a 529 plan due to the favorable rate of return and the minimal impact on your financial aid eligibility.

But you’ll incur a tax penalty if you pull that money out of a 529 plan to pay for non-approved expenses. So what should you do if you’re not sure of your child’s college future? Should you continue to rely on the 529 plan and run the risk of penalties, or take a different savings route that would leave more cash on hand if college doesn’t pan out, but likely cost you in financial aid if college comes to fruition?

The short answer, according to this article, is to take the 529 plan off the table only if you are sure your child won’t attend college. Otherwise, keep saving in your 529 plan.

If you’re interested in the math behind the recommendation, the article lays it out nicely. But this question of the 529’s viability for kids who may or may not be college bound was a new one for me, and one that seemed worth sharing here.

Announcing the Collegewise Scholarship Program

At Collegewise, we make our living working with families who can afford to hire us. But we’ve always felt a responsibility to be generous with our time, our resources, and our counseling to help get information and assistance to kids who won’t have a Collegewise counselor to guide them. One of the ways we’ve done that is to work with students pro-bono. What we haven’t done is formalize this work. We’ve never established how many pro-bono kids we can help through the process while doing a good job for both them and for our customers. We’ve never publicized any program like this or offered an organized way for students to raise their hand for consideration, or for counselors on the high school side to identify kids they believe would benefit. That’s about to change.

The Collegewise Scholarship Program
This week we’re proud to announce the Collegewise Scholarship Program. Championed and brought to fruition by our own Casey Near, this program will assist U.S. students of limited means who would benefit from working one-on-one with a Collegewise counselor. We’ll help them build their college lists. We’ll help them craft their applications and essays. We’ll act as the project managers, answer their questions, and cheerlead them through a successful college application process.

How to apply
This year, we’re accepting applications from rising seniors in the class of 2019 residing in the United States (including DACA students). For students interested in applying—and for high school counselors who’d like to share this opportunity with particular students—the application is available here. The deadline to apply is June 22nd. If spaces are still available after that date, we’ll consider applications on a rolling basis. If you have any questions, please email We’re excited to have the opportunity to help more kids find their way to the right colleges, and to do even more to help level the college access playing field.

When private scholarships go to 529 plans

The largest chunks of scholarship money available to help students pay for college comes from the federal and state governments, and from the colleges themselves. But students can also apply for “outside” or “private” scholarships offered from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. Rather than simply writing a check to the scholarship winner, some of those providers will offer their awards as contributions to the family’s 529 college savings plan. There are several financial advantages to this, and expert Mark Kantrowitz explains them well in his recent piece, “Advantages of receiving scholarships through a 529 college savings plan.”

Free webinar: Financing Your College Education

Much like the process of applying to college, applying for financial aid can be confusing and stressful. Unfamiliar terms, conflicting information, complex application processes—it can all be so much more difficult than it needs to be. If you’d like some help making sense of it all, I hope you’ll join us for an upcoming free webinar:

Financing Your College Education: A Conversation with Jodi Okun
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

Jodi is the founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and the author of Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro. She’ll be joined by Collegewise counselor Michael Banks to discuss tips and techniques for navigating the financial aid application process while avoiding common mistakes. We’ll also record the webinar and share it with all registered attendees.

You can register or get more information here. I hope we’ll see you there virtually.

Avoid financial aid scams

This CNBC piece shares some good tips on how to avoid scams that purport to help you pay for college, including:

  • Scholarship applications that come with a fee
  • Seemingly exclusive invitations to workshops that in reality are open to everyone
  • Seminars that promise better information than your high school counselor can give you

For honest, reliable advice, here’s NACAC’s list of trusted sources.

How should you spend your 529 savings?

Parents, if you have a student starting college this fall and you’ve saved money for college in a 529 plan, you’ll soon be faced with making a decision about how and when you’ll spend it. Should you try to spread that savings out over time while your student is in college? Or should you use what you’ve saved in the first semester or two?

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz tackles this question in this column, “What is the best way to use 529 plan funds?” The details within the explanation might get a bit complex for those like me who don’t speak fluent finance, but hang in there until the end where he summarizes his recommendations.

Is that your best and final financial aid package?

If you’re a parent of an applicant receiving their admission offers, and the attached financial aid packages, you may have heard that your financial aid award might not be the college’s best and final offer. It’s possible to appeal your financial package and to secure yourself even more aid. But given how many families choose to do so, your odds of success improve if you remember a few important points.

Here are scenarios that increase your chances:

1. Your financial status has changed since you filed your FAFSA. For example, have you lost a job, have you incurred unforeseen expenses like medical bills, have you begun caring for an elderly parent, etc.?

2. Did you report any information incorrectly in your original FAFSA or other financial aid paperwork?

Either of those first two scenarios mean that the financial picture used to evaluate your need was incorrect or has since become outdated. Neither is a guarantee that a college will alter your aid package, but they are both compelling reasons to request that they reconsider, especially when you can provide documentation to substantiate the change.

3. Did your student receive a more generous package from a comparable college? “Comparable” is a tricky term here. Regular readers know that I don’t believe Princeton is somehow empirically better than Prescott College. But colleges know who their collegiate competition is. They know the schools most likely to admit—and to enroll—students from the same applicant pool. And put bluntly, they know their place in the pecking order. So if two schools that enroll students with similar qualifications give you very different financial aid packages, a compelling argument to reconsider can be made to the school who offered less aid. But it might be less effective to pit your reach school against your safety school in the battle for more financial aid.

Now, here’s some additional advice to help you avoid ineffective approaches:

1. Don’t base your argument on your student’s merit. You can give a publicist-worthy pitch about the relative strengths of your student. But that merit has already been rewarded with an offer of admission. Financial aid officers are more likely to respond to facts and data than they are pride and puffery.

2. Don’t sound entitled. Financial aid officers believe that aid should be awarded based on a family’s ability, not their willingness, to pay. Don’t base your argument on what you think you deserve. Base it on what you can prove that you need.

3. Don’t negotiate, play hardball, or do anything else reminiscent of buying a car. The financial aid officer’s job is not to put your student in this college today no matter what it takes. It’s their job to meet your demonstrated need while protecting the college’s assets. Treat the interaction like a facts-based, respectful discussion rather than a game of salesmanship, bluff, and bluster.

Financial aid and divorced parents

Some of the most common questions parents ask during our financial aid seminars are around divorce. Are both parents responsible to pay for college? How will schools evaluate financial need if a parent refuses to contribute? Do responsibilities change if a parent remarries? If you’ve got similar questions, Mark Kantrowitz delivers a good primer on the topic here.

Which financial aid award is best?

Not all financial aid awards—or all financial aid award letters—are created equal. Financial aid can come in several forms, from free money that doesn’t need to be paid back, to loans, to work study programs. There’s no standardized way to present the award elements to families, and many colleges highlight the total amount of the aid package but make the families decipher just how much of that award, if any, is tantamount to a discount off the sticker price of the college.

To help you compare one school’s financial aid package with another, check out the financial aid comparison tool on the College Board’s website. You enter the figures, then it does the math and tells you what each school will actually cost to attend.

A new investment strategy for 529 plans?

Many families saving for college in 529 plans use age-based asset allocation, a strategy that invests more aggressively early in your child’s life and later changes to a more conservative strategy as the student gets closer to college. If you’ve got young kids and you’re saving in a 529 plan, you might be interested in Mark Kantrowitz’s recent white paper, “Improvements in Age‐Based Asset Allocation: Strategies for College Savings and Retirement Plans.”

As the summary describes in part:

“This paper presents a systematic way of improving the performance of age-based asset allocation strategies by delaying the onset of the shift to a more conservative mix of investments by up to 10 years. This increases the return on investment by increasing the duration of the initial investment in high-risk, high-return asset classes, but without significantly increasing the overall risk of investment loss. The age-based asset allocation is then compressed to fit the remaining investment horizon.”

The summary is here, and the paper itself is here.