While early February folklore suggests the arrival of spring can be forecast by the presence or lack of a groundhog’s shadow, many parents of high school seniors will spend the month trying to determine if paying for education after high school will cast a shadow on their family finances.
Current college and college-bound students in Indiana have until March 10 to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to determine how much financial aid a student might receive and how much a family may need to contribute to a college education.
“We have families that are just scared and say ‘I cannot pay. We do not make enough,’” said Bill Wozniak, director of marketing for ISM College Planning, a Carmel-based company that advises families on how to find financial aid while keeping loans to a minimum.
Wozniak says students from lower income brackets typically have more aid options, while upper income families can afford public or private college tuition. Then Wozniak says there’s “that group in the middle” that feels the pinch between too much income to qualify for financial aid but not enough to foot the tuition bill.
Many families aren’t aware they won’t pay a school’s listed tuition price. Grants, scholarships and education tax benefits subtracted from tuition and fees results in the net college cost.
According to College Board, the average published tuition for in-state public colleges is about $9,000 per year, but the net price is about $3,000. For private schools those figures are $31,230 and $12,360, respectively. Families cover the net price with loans, income and savings.
There is good news on the savings front. A 2015 Fidelity Investments study found that 69 percent of parents have started saving for college — an all-time high. But those parents are on track to cover only 27 percent of their child’s college costs.
College financing professionals say statistics such as these point to the need for families to start saving early, hopefully right after a child is born. Indiana offers the College Choice Program, which has three options. The most popular is the College Choice 529 Direct Savings Plan.
“We lowered our minimum contribution in 2013 to $10, and that’s kind of to help fight the problem that some 529 plans are having nationally in that they were perceived to only be accessible to upper middle income and upper income folks,” said Troy Montigney, executive director of the Indiana Education Savings Authority.
Montigney notes that the first $5,000 saved annually in Indiana’s plan qualifies for a 20 percent tax credit. The earnings on 529 savings are tax deferred at the federal level and become tax free, so long as the money is spent on qualified education expenses. In addition 529 savings are not a major consideration in determining a student’s eligibility for financial aid.
One of the most important considerations in financing college is deciding how much debt to take on. The Learn More Indiana website includes a “College Return on Investment” section that lets users compare typical costs and student debt for each of Indiana’s public universities. The site also provides typical annual salaries for college graduates working in Indiana based on their degree. The site shows how those salaries grow from the year after graduation to ten years into a career.
The worst debt, Wozniak says, is taken on by students who don’t finish their degrees, thus lessening their chances of landing a job that will allow them to repay their loans
Families can get free help filing the FAFSA starting at 2 p.m. local time Feb. 21 at 42 locations across Indiana during College Goal Sunday (collegegoalsunday.org).
“By 4 o’clock they have their FAFSA filed and when they walk out, they look at me and they say ‘that wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was,’” Wozniak said.
No matter how a family chooses to pay for college, understanding the terms of financial aid before borrowing is key. Families can learn about the types of federal aid by visiting StudentAid.gov/types. Filing the FAFSA is the first step toward a more accurate prediction of how families can afford college — no folklore required.