How to Maximize Your College Financial Aid Opportunities

When it comes to saving for college, many of us focus on a dollar amount. And it is good to have a goal, whether monthly, annually, or over a lifetime, for saving for your child’s college education.

But what many of us don’t consider are strategies for maximizing financial aid for our children when they apply for college. It’s better to pay for college out of savings than to take out student loans, but maximizing financial aid eligibility may net your child some needs-based grants, which don’t need to be paid back.

And if you haven’t saved enough to put your child through college without loans, you’ll have more low-cost federal loan options if you can show higher financial need.

One of the keys to maximizing financial aid eligibility is to put your assets in the right place. Sound complicated? It is. But we’re here to break down the financial needs assessment process and to offer some tips for getting the best possible financial aid outcomes.

How Financial Need is Calculated

Financial need is calculated using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you have enough in savings to pay for college, it’s still smart to fill out the FAFSA. You’ll fill it out every year after doing your taxes, and the earlier the better.

When you fill out the FAFSA form, you’ll include information on your earnings, assets, and other benefits (such as disability) from both parents and the student. The FAFSA will also ask about how many people are in your family, and how many people in the family will be attending college in the coming school year.

All of those numbers are fed into a formula that calculates Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC formula changes each year, and some important changes have been made for the 2017-18 school year, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

The formula is complex, to say the least. If you want to see it in full, check out this page.

A more succinct explanation is that the EFC is the number that financial aid staff use to determine how much need-based aid you can get. The EFC isn’t necessarily how much you’ll pay up front for college.

Financial aid staff subtract your EFC from your total cost of attendance (COA), which is how much it’ll cost you to go to school for the year — or, for shorter programs, the entire program. The remainder tells the staff how much need-based aid you can get. On top of that, you can also receive non-need-based financial aid.

Need-based aid includes Federal Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study Programs, and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, none of which need to be paid back. It also includes Direct Subsidized Loans and Federal Perkins Loans. These loans will need to be paid back, but the government foots the bill for interest while you’re in school, which makes them more affordable.

Non-need-based financial aid includes other loans, which aren’t subsidized. This means the loans accrue interest while you’re in school and are, therefore, the more expensive route. These options are Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Federal PLUS Loans. Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants also fall into the non-need-based category, but are unique because you don’t have to pay them back if you meet certain requirements after school.

If you do need help paying for college, it’s always best to take advantage of the need-based options first, unless you’ll qualify for a TEACH Grant. Then, you can turn to non-need-based options.

The bottom line is that the smaller you can keep your EFC, the more need-based (read: more affordable!) college aid you can access.

Certain Assets Count More than Others

Under EFC, assets are not equal. The government’s formula counts some assets as being more available for paying for college than others. Here’s a breakdown of how various assets count toward your EFC:

  • Student assets (including savings, investments, business interests, and real estate): 20 percent
  • Student income: 50 percent
  • Parents’ assets (including savings, investments, some business interests, and some real estate and based on a sliding income scale): 2.6-5.6 percent
  • Parents’ income (based on a sliding scale after some allowances): 22-47 percent
  • Gifts from others (including gifts from grandparents or direct tuition payments from grandparents): 50 percent to 100 percent

As you can see, allocating assets so that they’re in the parents’ name(s) rather than the student’s will reduce the EFC, increasing financial aid possibilities.

2017-18 Changes

It used to be that the FAFSA was based on the prior year’s income. As a result, a student’s income from the calendar year before college started counted in the EFC calculation. Also, gifts from grandparents and others given during a student’s senior year could result in a dollar-for-dollar reduction in aid eligibility in freshman year. So many advised that grandparents not give gifts for college tuition until late in junior year, so that senior year aid wouldn’t be affected.

Recently, though, the calculation was changed to be based on the prior-prior year, starting in the 2017 school year. This means that for the 2017-18 school year, income from 2015 (rather than 2016) will be counted in the EFC formula. As a result, grandparent gifts and similar funding sources can be used for both junior and senior years’ tuition.

Confused yet? Bottom line: it’s best to save gifts, and even some large disbursements from college savings accounts, until late sophomore or early junior year, if possible.

Besides these confusing rules, it’s important to understand that different savings vehicles will affect your loan eligibility in different ways. So, let’s run down the various options for college savings, and see how those savings plans could affect you or your child.

Where to Put Your Assets

Where to allocate assets for the best financial aid outcomes depends heavily on your situation. Obviously, there are certain tax implications to having assets in a parent’s name rather than a child’s, and whether the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages depends on your circumstances.

Still, there are things you can do while saving for college, or before filling out the FAFSA, that will help boost financial aid possibilities. Here are some suggestions:

Own a 529 Account

A 529 account is a fabulous way to save for your child’s college education because earnings aren’t subject to federal and (most) state income taxes. Withdrawals that are used for qualified higher education expenses also are tax exempt.

Most parents open a custodial 529 account in their name and name their child as the beneficiary. This is an acceptable way to fund a 529 account and is, in fact, the better option for financial aid.

If the account is in the parent’s name (even with the child as a beneficiary), it will be counted toward the EFC at the much lower parent rate, as long as the parent continues to claim the student on his or her taxes. If the account in the child’s name, 20 percent of what’s saved in the account will be added to the EFC for that year.

Prepaid tuition plans also can count as either parent or student assets, depending on how they’re set up. If you choose to save money in a plan like this, the refund value of the account at the time you apply for the FAFSA will count as an asset. Again, it’s usually best to set up a custodial account in the parent’s name with the child named as a beneficiary.

A Note on Grandparent-Held 529 Accounts

Grandparents can also open 529 accounts with a grandchild as a beneficiary. On the surface, this would seem to reduce the student’s EFC because grandparent-owned assets don’t count toward it.

However, distributions from grandparent-owned accounts count as income for the beneficiary. While the money isn’t taxed if it’s used for school purposes, it does count as student income on the next year’s FAFSA. That means that 50 percent of the distribution would count toward the student’s EFC two years after the distribution is used for educational expenses.

For example, if you take a distribution from a grandparent-owned 529 in 2017 to pay for that fall’s tuition, the distribution will count heavily against aid calculations for the 2019-2020 school year.

If a grandparent wants to contribute to college, consider using the grandparent-owned account to fund the last two years of college, at which point the year’s taxable income won’t matter.

Extra State Benefits for a 529

In some states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, money held in that state’s 529 plan doesn’t count in calculations for needs-based state education grants. If you live in a state that shelters assets in its own 529 plan, and if you think there’s a good chance your child will attend an in-state college, consider opening an account with your state.

Again, though, whether this will be your best option will depend on your particular needs and financial situation. Each state and Washington, D.C., has its own plan, and each plan comes with different fees and benefits. So be sure you thoroughly compare your state’s plan to other options to ensure it will be the best bet for your child’s college savings.

Other College Savings Accounts

Although the 529 plan is considered by many experts to be the best option for college savings, there are other tax-advantaged college savings accounts, such as the Coverdell Education Savings Account. If you max out your annual savings in your 529 account and want to continue to save for college, a Coverdell can be a good option. Here, too, it’s best if the parent acts as the account’s custodian, since it will be counted as a parent asset if it’s in the parent’s name.

If you need still other college savings options, or if you want to help your child save for other things, consider savings bonds or regular taxable investments. These items can be placed in a parent’s name, which will make their impact on financial aid eligibility lower.

One final savings note: UGMA/UTGA custodial accounts will always count as the asset of the beneficiary. Because of this, these accounts will have a higher impact on financial aid eligibility. Once again, whether this type of account is right for your family will depend upon a host of other financial particulars. But you should know that these accounts will lower your child’s financial aid possibilities.

Spend Down Student Assets and Income First

Because the student’s assets count toward the EFC more, spend down those assets first. There are, of course, easy ways to do this. Use the student’s savings to buy a much-needed car before freshman year. Or just use the student’s savings to pay for the first year of college, boosting financial aid eligibility in subsequent years.

Use Savings to Pay Off Debt

This is something you should do anyway because the interest you’re earning on a savings account is much lower than the interest you’re paying on your credit cards. But because cars, homes, and other assets don’t count toward your EFC, paying down debt is a good way to get on track financially while boosting financial aid eligibility.

Maximize Retirement Account Contributions

Again, this is something you should be doing anyway. But if you have money in other savings accounts, use it to max out your retirement investments before filing the FAFSA. Alternatively, you can plan to max out your savings every year with automatic deductions from your paycheck.

Since retirement accounts don’t count toward your EFC, this reallocation of your assets will increase student aid possibilities, while setting you up for a better financial future.

You should also consider having your child save for retirement from an early age. This will also help shield some of your child’s earnings from the EFC. And even if you think it’s too early to save a lot for retirement, some of the money could eventually be withdrawn for a down payment on a house.

Accelerate Other Expenses

If you (or your student) needs a new car or computer, buy it before you file the FAFSA. If the item is for your student, buy it with his or her money, if possible.

You can also use your savings to accelerate other expenses. Prepay your mortgage, since your primary residence doesn’t count as an asset for FAFSA purposes, or prepay other bills.

Pay for Your Own Degree

If you’ve been looking to go back to school, consider going when your child starts school. The total Expected Family Contribution is split across all family members enrolled in college, so putting some money into your education now can be a good investment.

Because of the fraud that surrounds this loophole, it’s not as easy to get as it once was. Now, schools are allowed to apply this exception at their discretion. Your child’s school may verify your enrollment for an actual degree at your school of choice.

The school may also choose to reduce your family’s income by the amount you’re paying for school, rather than increasing the total number of students enrolled.

Talk to a Professional

If your family has significant assets, you may need to talk to a professional about asset allocation for student aid outcomes.

For instance, once your child turns 18, you can reap some serious tax savings by putting as much as $26,000 in his or her name, even if they’re still a dependent, for FAFSA purposes. But the move that nets you some tax savings could seriously reduce financial aid eligibility.

If you’ve already put assets in your child’s name, you may want to talk to an accountant about how to legally spend them down. You can’t technically spend a child’s assets on the things you’re responsible for as a parent — food, shelter, medical care, etc. But you can spend them on extra things for the child’s benefit — art classes, summer camp, etc.

As you can see, the process of allocating assets so that you can get the most out of financial aid is enormously complicated. Whether you have a lot of assets or only a few, learning a bit about this process will help ensure your child gets the most possible financial aid and you have the least possible out-of-pocket education expenses.


Published or Updated: June 29, 2016
About Abby Hayes

Abby is a freelance journalist who writes on everything from personal finance to health and wellness. She spends her spare time bargain hunting and meal planning for her family of three. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and lives with her husband and children in Indianapolis.

Comments

  1. JB says:

    Hi Abby,
    Do you know if there are any tax benefits if the student uses their own money to pay for college? Thanks!

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