Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 5

For the last part of our college financial planning series, we wanted to know what students should consider when they are repaying their loans and what they should do if they have accrued a large amount of debt.  We once again spoke with Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, to help us answer these questions.

The first thing Kantrowitz advises is that if a student can make the required monthly payments and accelerate their payment of the loan, then they should consider making extra payments on the loan with the highest interest rate (after making the required payments on the loan). While not everyone can do this, students who can will pay off their loan earlier, reduce the interest accrued on the loan, and ultimately save a significant amount of money.

If a student runs into financial hardship and is unable to make their monthly loan payments, Kantrowitz advises students to speak with their lender immediately to find out their options.  For federal loans, in particular, there are a variety of options that will help them to continue to make payments without causing too much financial strain.

The first option for federal loans is a temporary suspension of repayment, such as a deferment or forbearance.  Kantrowitz explains that this is an option best suited for those who experience temporary or very short-term financial hardship, which could include things like short-term job loss, mental leave, maternity leave, etc.  The problem with this option is that the interest on the loan will continue to accrue on at least a portion of the loan, which will increase the size of the loan.  However, Kantrowitz explains that this will not be a major problem should one require this assistance for only about 3 or 4 months, as not much interest will have accrued over that time.  He advises that students not extend this type of assistance for much longer than that, and explains that this type of assistance will also have only a 3-5 year limit (depending on whether it is a deferment or forbearance).

For those requiring more long-term assistance on their loan, Kantrowitz advises students to choose an extended or income-based repayment plan. The extended repayment plan will reduce the monthly loan payment by extending the term of the loan.  For example, if a 10-year unsubsidized Stafford loan’s repayment term is increased to 20 years, this will cut the monthly loan payment by one-third.  However, Kantrowitz explains that this will also double the interest paid over the term of the loan, and will ultimately increase the total amount you pay on the loan.  “The longer the term of the loan,” says Kantrowitz, “the more you’ll pay.”

The second long-term option for repayment would be the income-based repayment plan.  This repayment plan will base the monthly loan payment on 15% of one’s discretionary income.  According to Kantrowitz, discretionary income is defined as the amount by which one’s income exceeds 150% of the poverty line.  Therefore, if your income is below that amount, your monthly loan payment would be $0.  However, this option also extends the term of the loan and can end up increasing the amount you pay over time.

According to Kantrowitz, there are a few benefits to choosing the income-based repayment option.  He first explains that this is a good safety net should one run into financial difficulties and become unable to make monthly loan payments.  This option is also beneficial in that after 25 years of repayment, all remaining debt will be forgiven (a feature not offered by private lenders).  In fact, a new version of the income-based repayment will reduce the percentage of discretionary income charged from 15% to 10%, and it will shorten repayment from 25 to 20 years before the remaining debt will be forgiven.  Kantrowitz also explains that should one work in the field of public service [jobs such as a teacher, public defender, prosecutor, member of the military, city, state, or federal worker, or for any 501(c)(3) charitable organization], then all remaining debt will be forgiven after 10 years of repayment.

According to Kantrowitz, students should avoid defaulting on their loans as this can greatly limit their options.  In fact, in many cases, it will actually get much more difficult to repay the loan as there are many ways in which the debt will continue to be collected.  One way in which this is done is through a wage garnishment of up to 15% of total discretionary income.   This can also be done through the interception of federal and state income tax refunds.  On top of this, there will also be an increase of the term of the loan by almost 100%, in that 25% of each payment made (whether voluntary or involuntary) will be used to pay collection charges.  Therefore, a student will not only have to pay off the principal of the loan and the interest, but also the collection charges that come with defaulting on the loan.

Overall, there are things students can do before they run into trouble paying back their loans.  As mentioned previously, talking to one’s lender is perhaps the most important step whenever they are experiencing financial difficulties or hardship.  While their options may increase the amount they pays on the loan, it will prevent students from both going into significant debt and forcibly making payments on their loans.  By choosing to repay loans in these ways, students can greatly limit stress and misfortune by repaying their loans in the way that is right for them.

 

 

 

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Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 4

For the fourth installment of “Ask the Expert: College Financial Planning” series, we wanted to know how college housing choices effect financial aid decisions. To find out more, we spoke again with Mark Kantrowitz, college financial planning expert and publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com.

According to Kantrowitz, room and board are factored into the cost of college attendance, making it an expense covered by a student’s financial aid package. If a student chooses to live on-campus, their room and board would be based on the dormitory fees and the standard meal plan fee. If the student chooses to live at home with their parent(s) or guardian(s), rarely will they receive any financial aid for their housing accommodations.

If the student lives in an off-campus property (other than at home), the student will be afforded an allowance within their financial aid package to cover the cost of their housing. However, this price will be an arbitrary average rent price that is based on occasional rent surveys, and as Kantrowitz explains, universities are very reluctant to change these figures once they have been set. This means that if a student chooses to live in a property that is more expensive than the housing allowance, the university will not alter their allowance to accommodate the greater price. The only circumstances in which Kantrowitz sees this change being made is when the student has extenuating circumstances, such as a disability or having a dependent, which would require them to choose a more expensive residence.

For this reason, Kantrowitz advises students to try to stay within their budgets when it comes to off-campus housing. He explains “Just because you have an allowance that says you can pay up to this amount per month for rent, doesn’t mean that you should spend that amount. This is because in most cases the money that you’re spending on your living expenses is going to come in the form of loans, not grants.” By spending up to the allotted amount or above that amount, this will not only increase the student’s expenses per month, but it will also increase the amount of debt the student will have to pay off when they graduate.

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Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 3

For the third installment in our college planning series, we wanted to know what were some of the biggest issues encountered by students when applying for financial aid.  Once again, we spoke with Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com and expert on paying for college, to give us his perspective on this issue and how students can maximize their federal student aid.

According to Kantrowitz one of the major problems he identifies is that students often do not fully understand the reality of the loans they receive.  Kantrowitz explains that students will sign their name to a loan so long as it enables them to fulfill their dreams.  Many believe that they will figure out how to pay back the loan when they graduate from college.  However, this is a major problem, explains Kantrowitz, as it is much more difficult to figure out how to pay back the loan after you have incurred that cost, rather than before.   He urges that “If you’re choosing a college and your dream is to study a field that doesn’t pay very well, you need to make sure you borrow less to match your expected income when you graduate.”  While this could mean going to a cheaper school, it could also mean just limiting other costs while attending school.  Kantrowitz suggests buying used textbooks, selling textbooks back to the bookstore, taking fewer trips home, and eating out less.  He advises  “You have to live like a student while you’re in school so that you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.”

Another major problem Kantrowitz identifies is that student often will not file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early enough, and will consequently receive less financial aid.  Instead he urges students not to wait until they have filed their income tax information, but rather file their FAFSA based on projected income information and their previous income tax information.

To maximize financial aid with FAFSA, Kantrowitz urges students to be aware that income is weighted much more heavily than assets, and assets in a child’s name count much more heavily (about 20% are counted against aid eligibility) than those in the parent’s name (5.64% or less is counted against aid eligibility).  He explains that if you currently have a Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) account to help save for college, you may want to consider moving the money to a custodial 529 college savings plan account.  Kantrowitz advises that this is the most tax advantageous ways of saving for college, and that this will help students to maximize the financial aid they receive.

By saving, being frugal and being mindful, Kantrowitz explains that students can make the most of their experience, while still being able to afford college.  It is important that students stay informed when it comes to paying for college so that they may make decisions that are right for them.

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Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 1

For our newest blog series, we wanted to look at college planning and financial aid, as the student debt crisis has most certainly been a hot topic in the media recently.  For this series, we wanted to know exactly what students need to understand when it comes to financial aid, college financial planning, loan repayment, and student debt.  It just seems so complicated!

For the first installment in the “Ask the Expert:  College Financial Planning” series, we wanted to know what students should be concerned about when it comes to finances and applying for college.  To find out more, we spoke with Mark Kantrowitz, a noted financial aid and college planning author and publisher of FinAid and FastWeb, two resources for students looking to find out more about financial aid options available to them.

Kantrowitz tells us that students should ideally start looking at financial aid options as early as possible.  Often many students start looking their senior year, however, many of the deadlines have already passed.  Kantrowitz says that students looking to get scholarships should be planning for deadlines as early as junior year (if not earlier), so that they can get their applications in for those scholarships with deadlines in the fall of the their senior year.  He explains students should start considering financial aid as early as possible, as this increases the number of scholarships available to them, including those that they may earn in earlier grades.

According to Kantrowitz, when it comes to examining their options, they should weigh the cost of financial aid.  For students, he says, saving is always the better option.  “Every dollar you save is a dollar less that you’re going to have to borrow and every dollar you borrow, will cost you about $2 by the time you pay back the debt.”  It is simply the more affordable options, because when you save, you earn interest and when you borrow, you will pay interest. He gives us the example that, “If you were to save $200 per month for 10 years at 6.8% interest, you’d accumulate about $34,400.  If instead you were to borrow and pay back over 10 years at 6.8% interest, you’d pay $396/month.”  That would roughly double what one would pay if they were to save money instead.

Kantrowitz explains that students should also be aware of the actual cost of college.  He says that students should utilize a net price for college, which is the difference between the cost of attendance and just grants and scholarships.  “Think of it as a discounted sticker price.”  He explains that using this figure is a better basis for evaluating the cost of college rather than utilizing other cost evaluations.  Especially when it comes to the net price figures that schools will often provide on their websites.  Kantrowitz explains that these numbers will often include financial aid packages and loans, that do not actually lower the cost, but will rather increase the cost.

Kantrowitz also urges students to use caution with net price calculators that universities are now required to provide on their websites.  He explains that since October 2011 schools have mandated to host a calculator, however, he says that they really should only be used to determine a ballpark figure for net price.

According to Kantrowitz, there are a couple of major issues with these calculators.  The first major concern with these calculators is the number of questions the calculator has.  He says that much of the accuracy of these calculators is dependent upon the number of questions that they ask; while the standard calculator provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) contains approximately 10 questions, other calculators such as the one provided by the College Board, contain more questions.  The more questions a calculator has, the more accurate the calculator will be, he explains.  While these calculators are will mean more work for the user, they will produce much more accurate results.

The second concern Kantrowitz points out is that the age of data will play into the accuracy of the calculator.  He explains that calculators like those provided by NCES contain data that is approximately 2 years old, while those like the one provided by the College Board are current, and are more up-to-date.  In either case, Kantrowitz explains, one should use caution with these calculators and should not exclude any colleges on the sole basis of the figures provided by a net price calculator.

The last major concern Kantrowitz points to relates to the financial aid award letter.  He explains that students should be careful when they receive their financial award letter that they understand the characterization of the different awards and understand which award they were given.  “I’ve had families come to me thinking that they’re getting a free ride from a college, and when I look at the financial aid award letter I see $5,000 in student loans and $20,000 in parent loans.  That’s far from a free ride.”  Students should really do their homework when it comes to the different classifications of financial aid, so they know that when they receive a grant, they know which grant they have received and what this implies.

Overall, Kantrowitz urges students to start considering college financial aid early and often, and to do their homework when it comes to understanding the different options available to them.  He explains that students and their families should always exercise caution when it comes to financial aid and to make financial aid decisions that work best for them.

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