Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Affordable College: Don’t Pay Retail!

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

Is college now only for the wealthy? The College Board announced that tuition and fees increased over 14% for public universities and 6% for private colleges in
2009. The posted prices for higher education have more than doubled over the last decade, a rate averaging over 7% a year, which far outpaces the general rate of inflation for that time period. Have we reached the point that only the wealthy can afford to send their children to college?

The New York Times reports that families earning $100,000 a year would have to save about $1,000 a month for 18 years in a 529 plan to send 2 children to a public college such as the University of Michigan ($51,000/year/per child for four years). That’s more than the parents are likely to be saving for their own retirement! Looking at the numbers can be disheartening, but the information I have outlined below for you will show how college can be within the reach of average American families.

It is interesting to speculate why tuition has risen so much so quickly. Critics point out that the answer may lie in the perceived importance of a college degree and the corresponding public and social policy of expecting, or even insisting, that children to go to college. As a result, colleges have increased their non-tuition sources of revenue from federal and state governments and from alumni contributions so that those sources now account for over 70% of college funding. The big secret is that over half of non-tuition funding is used to subsidize tuition expenses for students with more moxie than money.

You may conclude that colleges simply spend more as their funding increases. Having tenured faculty, building more buildings, and offering more courses are all huge status symbols in higher education. These involve costs that never do down, only up. So our culture's emphasis on the importance of college leads to open-ended support for higher education, which in turn ratchets up college costs.

It is important to keep college costs in perspective. More than half of the four-year colleges in this country cost less than $9,000 per year. This includes tuition and fees, but not the other components of college costs: room and board, personal spending, books, and transportation. Is a college degree worth it? There is no question that college graduates earn much more than their cohorts (it is estimated $1million more over a lifetime) who are high school graduates and don't go to college. College graduates are also half as likely to become unemployed as those with only a high school degree.

But there is increasing doubt whether ‘Ivy League’ schools are worth the price. Do Ivy League graduates earn that much more than graduates of other schools to justify shelling out $200,000 for a B.A. degree? The value of better schools is not just their faculty and facilities, but the other students. High-end colleges provide much stiffer competition, and that continuing challenge is ingrained in the experience, deepening student scholastic relationships. This results in very strong ties to the highest achievers in society; networking that can shape opportunities in later life.

Many parents ignore college options for their children because they look at only the ‘sticker price.’ In fact, the only parents who pay the full sticker price are the more affluent. There are huge amounts of grants, scholarships, loans, and other subsidies available to most students. The more modest the means of the parents, the more aid is available. Many of the most highly regarded colleges (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.) have programs to pay 100% of a gifted student’s costs if their parents don’t have the means. Many schools have acceptance policies that are "need blind," meaning that the student's acceptance is not based on whether he or she can afford to pay the full tuition. (It's a good idea to ask the admissions office of a prospective school whether or not their acceptance policies are "need blind.")

With this in mind, I recommend that my clients consider the “1/3, 1/3, 1/3 College Strategy.” I am using this strategy to fund my seven grandchildren's education, and my clients have used it successfully in one form or another for the past 20 years. I call it the “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” plan because the funding comes from three sources:
1. The student must come up with one-third of the total college costs. This may be from savings, working, scholarships, grants, gifts, — it is the student’s obligation to chip in this part.
2. Student loans, not cosigned by the parent, should make up another one-third of the costs and it’s up to the student to research the options and get a good deal.
3. Finally, the parents chip in one-third. And, if/when the student graduates, the parents commit to making the payments on the student loans. Upon the parents’ death, the students can use their inheritance to pay off the loans, if any still remain unpaid.

The advantage of the “1/3, 1/3, 1/3” plan is that the students have ‘skin in the game’. They can go to whichever school they choose, but they have to come up with their third of the correspondingly higher cost. And if they drop out without finishing college, they are on the hook to pay off their own student loans.

The bottom line of this strategy is that the student will find out very quickly that the ‘sticker price’ of college is much less when educational aid is subtracted. Most of the other things needed (textbooks, room and board, transportation, etc.) are either discretionary or are available inexpensively, if researched. For example, used text books, and now electronic books, cut the cost of books dramatically.

So even if you can’t pay the full freight for college at retail prices, if your student wants it enough to learn to find the grants, scholarships, loans, and other subsidies, any college is available. The plus is that finding out how not to have to pay retail will be a life-long financial lesson he or she will have mastered!

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY

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