January 6, 2014 / 2:56 PM / 6 years ago

Column: 'Saving for college hurts financial aid,' and other myths

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Saving for college, applying for admittance and getting financial aid can all be complicated processes, so it’s not surprising that many myths have sprung up about paying for education.

Graduating students arrive for Commencement Exercises at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The following five myths, however, can wind up costing you dearly:

1. Saving for college hurts financial aid.

Saving in a child’s name — such as in a custodial account — definitely has a big negative impact on potential financial aid, since financial aid formulas expect 35 percent of the student’s assets to be spent each year on college.

Money in 529 college savings plans, on the other hand, typically has little impact, since it’s counted as a parental asset and less than 6 percent of the balance will be counted against financial aid.

Income counts far more heavily than assets in determining financial aid, in any case. The more income you make, the more colleges will assume you’ve saved for college, whether you actually have or not.

Meanwhile, most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans. That’s why Stuart Ritter, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price, suggests substituting the phrase “massive debt” for “financial aid” when you hear someone say they’re afraid saving for college will hurt a child’s ability to get financial aid.

“What they’re really saying is they’re afraid they’ll hurt the child’s ability to get massive debt,” Ritter said.

2. We aren’t rich, so we will get financial aid.

First, understand that financial aid experts didn’t design the Free Application for Federal Student Aid used by most schools to allot financial aid. Congress did. And Congress regularly tinkers with it, further increasing its complexity. So any relation between the FAFSA’s assessment of your financial resources and your actual ability to pay may be purely coincidental.

Okay, that’s a little harsh, but I’m regularly contacted by parents who are flummoxed by how much they’re expected to pay. Again, income counts heavily, and those with higher incomes can’t expect much need-based help regardless of their expenses.

“I have attended several paying-for-college seminars and found their estimated contributions quite sugar-coated compared to the reality,” one mother wrote, after her family’s “expected family contribution” for a younger daughter turned out to be $43,000. The family’s six-figure income meant they would get little help.

Even those who earn much less can struggle to pay their share. The woman’s older daughter, who was 23, was expected to pay about a quarter of her income for graduate school, the mother wrote.

“How can someone earning $25,000 pay for an apartment, phone, car insurance, food, taxes, etc. AND be expected to pay almost $6,000 in college costs?” the mother wondered.

4. If I have financial need, colleges will fill it.

Only about a third of public institutions and fewer than one out of five private schools are committed to meeting 100 percent of their students’ financial need, according to a 2008 study for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The vast majority of colleges instead engage in “gapping,” which means they deliberately leave a gap between a student’s demonstrated financial need and what the institutions are willing to provide in terms of grants, scholarships, loans and work study.

Just 10.2 percent of Loyola University Chicago undergraduates have their financial need fully met, according to College Board statistics, and, on average, the school meets just 79 percent of undergraduates’ financial need.

The statistics at New York University are even worse: just 4.4 percent of undergraduates have their financial need fully met, and overall the university meets an average of 55 percent of financial need.

4. Private colleges are always more expensive than public schools.

At first glance, this would seem obvious: the average published tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions was $8,893 in 2013-14, according to the College Board, compared to $30,094 for private four-year schools.

But colleges are like cars: few people pay the sticker price. And sometimes private schools discount their prices enough to make them competitive with public schools, said college consultant Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego.

Also, you may be paying for more years of school with a public institution. Only about one in five public college students graduates in four years, compared to about half of private college attendees, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

5. My kid can work his way through school.

Working your way through community college is certainly do-able, and some motivated students support themselves long enough to get a four-year degree.

But study after study has made the point that the more hours a student works, the more likely he or she is to drop out. It’s simply harder than it used to be to get an education on one’s own.

The real cost of college has more than doubled since 1980. Also, Congress tightened the rules dramatically on who is considered “independent” for the purposes of financial aid, making it much harder for undergraduates trying to do it on their own.

(The views expressed here are author’s own.)

Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Andrew Hay

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