Last-Minute College Savings Tips for Parents

Parents preach to their children not to procrastinate with their schoolwork, but that doesn’t mean they are taking their own advice.

Whether it’s saving for their children’s education or their own retirement, studies show the savings rate is inadequate. For parents with kids headed off to college in the next few years, experts say it’s not too late to beef up the college fund.

Savings Tip No.1: Compromise on School

Parents and children should have frank conversations and make a school choice based on learning needs and career ambitions, not name recognition.

“If you can’t afford to send your child to a private college don’t send them to one,” says John Vento, author of  Financial Independence (Getting to Point X): An Advisor's Guide to Comprehensive Wealth Management, noting that many state and city schools are top notch and will cost a fraction of what a private university costs.

“Four years of a private school with room and board can easily cost over $200,000. You don’t want to make paying for a college education the thing that puts you in bankruptcy down the road,” he says.

Savings Tip No.2: Take Advantage of Government Loans

Every family should take advantage of government education loans.

According to Bill Harris, founder of online wealth management company Personal Capital, there is no “means testing” with the Stafford Loan, which means a family making $200,000 and one making $40,000 are both eligible.

“As a freshman, you can borrow $5,500 per year and that grows to $7,500 as a senior,” says Harris. “The fixed rate of 6.8% is the best deal in town and it’s something provided by the government--it doesn’t have to be provided by the parents.”

Savings Tip No.3: Invest in a 529-College Savings Plan

True, the earlier parents start funding a 529-college savings plan, which is a tax advantaged way to save for college, the better, but it’s never too late, says Vento. He says many states give tax deductions for contributing to a 529-plan. For instance, parents in New York who contribute $10,000 in their child’s junior year of high school will get a state tax deduction that’s the equivalent of a $1,300 scholarship. The following year, when the kid is now headed to college, Vento says parents can pull out any money saved in the account to cover tuition.

“Parents should check their own state’s 529-plan to see if it offers a state deduction. It really is a big deal.”

Savings Tip No.4: Take advantage of American Opportunity Tax Credit

Families with an overall income under $160,000 per year, or $80,000 for single filers, can qualify for a tax credit of up to $2,500 during the first four years of a child’s college education. This tax credit includes expenses for things like books, supplies and equipment that aren’t necessarily paid to the college or university.

“You qualify for this credit every year for the first four years your child is enrolled in college, and if you have multiple children, you get the credit per child,” says Vento. “It’s a really terrific way to help pay for college.”

Savings Tip No.5: Move Assets Out of Child’s Name

Many parents open savings accounts in their children’s name, which is a great way to build a nest egg, but it can have a negative impact when it comes to paying for college. When determining eligibility for federal financial aid, 20% of any assets under the child’s name will count against him or her in the amount of aid offered, says Vento.

“The child’s assets are weighed more heavily than the parent’s assets,” Vento says, adding that up to 5.46% of parent’s assets will count when determining eligibility for aid.

Savings Tip No.6: Look at Alternative Loan Types

Harris of Personal Capital warns parents against taking out a private loan from a bank or credit union. “Most private loans have higher costs and many are variable rate, which means the interest rate could spike,” he says Harris.

Instead, consider peer-to-peer lenders to see if they offer a lower fixed rate and check with the university or college to see what tuition assistance they offer.