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Dos and Don'ts of College Savings

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

Morningstar, 04/27/2012

Investor 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 $17,131 per year on average (in-state), and $38,589 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 5.6 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 the student, there are many steps parents can take to improve their odds of making it affordable, including qualifying for financial aid. Below are some ideas to help get them 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.com's 529 Plan Center here.)

Do: Apply for Any Scholarships for Which the Student Might Be Eligible
Applying for scholarships costs nothing but time, and the payoff could make a big difference in reducing out-of-pocket college costs. An obvious place for parents 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 Scholarships.com. 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 provided, the better the 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 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 parents, 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.

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