Let Uncle Sam Help You Pay For College

By Motley Fool StaffMarketsFool.com

Getting a college education is expensive, but the federal government can help with tax breaks for educational expenses, and being smart about managing your student loans can also cut your costs.

In this installment of Industry Focus, Motley Fool analyst Gaby Lapera and Director of Investment Planning Dan Caplinger discuss tax breaks for education, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the deduction for student loan interest. In addition, Gaby and Dan talk about consolidating student loans, which can reduce your monthly payment but risks losing some of the other benefits that various types of loans give you. Being smart about the implications of one choice over another is essential in order to make the most of your situation and not lose key advantages of the financial aid you've received.

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A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Aug. 29, 2016.

Gaby Lapera: If you can have smaller loans,that's definitely the better option. Of course, talking about financial aid, I think we covered FAFSA, federal loans over private loans. The other thing to consider isscholarships. It's never been easier to findscholarships, which means it's also probably harder to get them,because so many people are applying for them. Butif you go online and search for scholarships,I'm sure you can find something. I think they even give out a scholarship for being left handed. Youhave to apply, and I'm sure a lot of left handed people apply. But it's there. There's so, so many.Dan Caplinger:Yeah, in all seriousness,it's a confusing thing that a lot ofpeople get into trouble with. They see a size of a financial aid package,and they just compare it based on the size,and they don't look into how much of it is a grant or a scholarship that they just don't have to pay, versus how much of it is loans? AndI've seen people make mistakes, and say, "This school gave me $40,000 and this other school gave me $30,000." But when youask them how much of it was loans and how much of it was grants,it turns out that they would have been better offtaking the smaller packagebecause more of it was an outright giftthat they would never have to pay back.Lapera:Yeah. AndI just want to take a moment to talk to college students out there. Atthe end of every semester,I would receive emails from students saying, "You can't give me a D, I'll lose my financial aid." And that always killed me because,I know there are professors out there who aren't greatabout helping, but I would literallymeet you in a coffee shop,I would meet you after hours,I would give so much help.So,make sure thatyou do the work to get the good grades. Don'tblow off the opportunity that you've been given,because you're making it very expensive for yourself. After that heartfelt message,let's talk about taxes. (laughs)Caplinger:The silver lining in all this is, the federalgovernment understands how expensive it is to go to college. There are a number of tax breaks that a lot of people can take advantage of in order to reduce the cost, offset the cost, a little bit. Some of them hit while you're in school, others applyafter you're through schooltrying to pay those student loans off.Lapera:And the ones you get while you're in school are some of the biggest ones, correct?Caplinger:That's right. Things like the American Opportunity Tax Credit, for up to four years of undergraduate education. That can often be the largest, because it'll pay 100% of up to $2,000 a year, then 25% of the next $2,000 a year. So, up to a maximum of $2,500 for a maximum of four years. Do the math, that's $10,000 toward your college education. Subject to income limits and that kind of thing, but it's readily available for a lot of people.

Beyond undergraduate, there's another credit called the Lifetime Learning Credit. It's not quite as generous,because it only applies to a smaller percentageof the amount that you pay. It's up to 20% of the first $10,000 that you pay for education over the course of the year. The benefit here is,it's not just limited to undergrad.It could be graduate school,it can be work training related,things that later in your career. The whole name of Lifetime Learning isdesign to emphasize just how much more flexible that is. Looking at those two credits, it can make a big dent inhow much you're having to pay out of pocket,because the government is coming back and putting someback in your pocket.Lapera:Yeah.I know that sometimes when people do their taxes,especially younger people, they look at them and they're so overwhelmed, they're just like, "I'm just going to take the standard deduction. I'm not even going to try to do any of these other things." But it can really help you out. Keep an eye out for that when you're filing your taxes this year.

The other thingwe wanted to touch on briefly is,you have your student loans, you'vegraduated from college. Whatever is not eligible for forgiveness or whatever, you have to pay off. Andsometimes people get overwhelmed with that. There are a few optionsyou have if you are overwhelmed. First andforemost, I really encourage you to reach out to your creditors,because ultimately, it's in their best interest to get paid. They will work with you to help you make a payment schedule that works for the both of you, so you don't default and they don't get any money at all.

Caplinger:Yeah. It's in everybody's interest, it's in the creditor's interest to get some money back. Anyarrangements that they can makethat result in you makingsome payments is better than the reality of getting $0 back from you because you're justtotally overwhelmed and can't afford to deal with it.Lapera:Yeah. And then, the other thing I really encourage you to think about isdebt consolidation, which is basically, they take all of your loans and bundle them. In theory, you can end up paying a lower interest on it afterwards.Caplinger:Yeah. Youhave to be really careful with that,because there are reputable consolidation outfits, and there are unreputableconsolidation providers. The real questionthat you have to look at very closely iswhat the makeup of your loans is currently. If you're heavily with private student loans, theconsolidation is a lot more likely to make sense,because the private loans aren't all that good to begin with,so you don't really have a whole lot to lose with consolidation. When you have a lot of federal loans, however, you really need to look closely before you consolidate.

Thequestions you need to be asking the institution you're working with is,are you going to lose the benefits of these federal loans? Are you going to loseinterest deferment? Are yougoing to lose the opportunity to have loan forgiveness? If the answer is yes, and you're in the category of people who would have taken advantage of those provisions, you'regoing to want to really think twice before you consolidate and give those up all in exchange for what can be a smaller monthly payment. Theother thing to look closely at is, mostconsolidation firms will offer you thesmaller monthly payment. But what they don't really highlight is, the way they get you the smaller payment is often byextending the period of the loan a lot longer. So,I've seen situations where what would have been a five-year or a 10-year loan repayment period turns into a 20-year loan repayment period. And yes, you have smaller payments,but when you look at the total amount of interest you payover the lifetime of your loans, itskyrockets after these consolidations,because you expended that period so much longer.Lapera:Yeah, andpart of the reason you could potentially lose benefitsif you have federal loans is,because of the way consolidation works,it's basically a company buying your debt,and you promising to repay them rather than the original creditors. That's how you end up in these messes. You mentioned earlier that there'sgood consolidation companies and bad consolidation companies. Can you highlight what you should look for when you'relooking for a consolidator?Caplinger:One of the things that's ideal is,if you have a federal loan provider that you're already working with, the odds are much better that, if that federal loan providerreaches out to you to make consolidationrecommendations,they're going to have the big picture there. Because they've already been vetted by the federal governmentto become eligible to give these federal loans. So,in general, they're a little bit more reputable.

On the other hand, if you're working with a private loan provider, they're alwaysgoing to be looking for ways to get more of a loan balance under their umbrella, even if it'snot necessarily the best decision for you. Youcan't have a blanket rule of, "All federal loan providers are good, all private loan providers are bad." Often, it's the same institution. But justbeing aware of the situation ...if you can sense that they understand the issues involved,that they understand that consolidationis not always the right answer,that's the best sign that you have that they're aprovided that can give you the consultation thatyou really need to make the right decision for you.

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