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Saving For College, Part 3: What's Financial Need?

Contributed by mm | December 24, 2004 4:55 PM PST

To some extent, financial aid process is a zero-sum game: the college will first expect you and your kids to contribute a certain amount based on your assets, earning power and other factors, and then will use different kinds of financial aids, like student loans, grants or scholarship, to meet the gap. Therefore, as I mentioned in the last post, it is important to have the right financial "structure" -- the optimal mix of assets between different kinds of accounts -- in place by the time your kids start the college application, to lower college's expectation for your share of the contribution.

To understand what is the right mix, it is crucial to understand how financial needs are being established. First, take a look at the most important formula in the financial aid game:

Cost of Attendence - Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Financial Need

Yes, the financial need is based on the cost of the school your kid will attend, and an "expected" amount financial aid officers will calculated based on your overall financial status. As you cannot influence the cost of attendence once you pick up the school, what you can do is to play by the rules and lower your EFC as much as possible. (Your kids may choose to attend a "cheaper" schoool, but you might still want to minimize yur EFC, because EFC calculation is irrelevant of how expensive or how inexpensive of the school.)

EFC is usually determined by the following factors:

- Parent Income
- Allowances against Income
- Parent Assets
- Number of Family Members in the Household
- Number of Children currently Enrolled in College
- Non-Custodial Contribution
- Student Income & Assets

Once you are into this process, you might soon realize that there are two sets of formula to determine EFC: the Federeal Metholody (FM), which is used to determine eligibility for federal aid, and the Institutional Methodology (IM), which is used by most colleges and universities in determining institutional scholarship funds.

To date, the best comparison between FM and IM I found is from Brown University's Office of Financial Aid. Its page summarizes both methodologies and compares them head-to-head.

If you carefully study the information, you may receive some hints about how to best arrange your assets for maximum financial aid eligibility:

- Both FM and IM exclude retirement plans in the net assets calculation; retirement plans include 401(k), Roth IRA, pension plan, etc.
- In FM, home equity from your primary residence is excluded from calculation. IM does include home equity in the assets calculation.
- Student is expected to contribute up to 35% of assets under his/her name annually for the college expenses.
- Value of prepaid tuition plans will not be included in the net assets, but Education IRAs and college saving plans (like 529) will be included. However, distribution from prepaid tuition plans will be considered "outside resources," which will reduce financial needs dollar by dollar.
- Not much can you play with your income at the years of college: even your contributions to 401(k) and your social security benefits, which do not necessarily show up in your tax return, will be included to calculate your earning power. Also, tax-free distribution from Roth IRA for educational purposes can be included in your income stream.

In the next part, I will play with a financial aid calculator, and draw some early conclusion on how to best position assets to balance retirement savings and college savings. Keep tuned.

(This article is a component of the 10-part "Saving for College" series at PFBlog. If you want to read from the start, follow the links at this Table of Contents page.)

This Post Has Received 10 Comments. Share Your Opinions Too.

Andrew Yu Commented on December 25, 2004

For legitimate reasons, can you move a chunk of your net assets to another country to lower the number on paper, a couple of years before your kid entering the college? (probably who knows)

Andrew Yu Commented on December 25, 2004

Thank you very much for your nice summary. It's extremely important to know. It looks like that we'd better maximize retirement accounts and don't hurry paying off mortgages if college is not too far away.

Chris Sells Commented on December 25, 2004

What do you think about the tactic of moving money to a variable life insurance plan to "hide" it from EFC calculations? After 10 years, you can borrow against the death benefit @ 0% interest and no taxes, so you can still get to the money to actually pay tuition. In fact, it seems *too* good, which is why I'm skeptical.

Andrew Yu Commented on December 25, 2004

VUL is too costly for most people as an investment vehicle, because it charges much higher cost of insurance (COI) in addition to a bunch of administration charges, plus front loads for their mutual funds. The worst thing is the COI requires life time commitment (up to 95 yrs old), and the charge becomes rediculously high when you get old and don't need insurance (no dependent). I am afraid the insurer just wish to die sooner to get any benefit from the life long payment. It only makes sense for those whose income is too high (>250K/year) to qualify for (and max out) other retirement vehicles. By the way, I think you borrow against your cash value instead of "death benefit", and the interest is not 0%, otherwise you don't earn any interest from your cash value during the loan time.

In this sense, Roth IRA seems the best place you should always max out every year.

Chris Sells Commented on December 25, 2004

You're right, you do borrow against your cash value, not your benefit. However, the cost of borrowing money is 0% after 10 years and it doesn't need to be paid back.

Chris Sells Commented on December 25, 2004

BTW, I'm curious if you could quantify "much higher COI" for me and "front loads for their mutual funds." My VUL policy has hundreds of funds to choose from, not all of them managed funds.

mm Commented on December 26, 2004

Thanks for the discussion. I am not very familiar with VUL -- as you can read from pfblog, I am currently sticking to term life insurance.

Based on what I know about VUL, borrowing can be a great feature in your tax deferral strategy, but you also need to play it safe as if you borrow too much, or your investment declines significantly, you will need to inject additional money to keep the policy from lapsing. Lapsing may trigger severe tax consequences.

As you are locked in for at least 10 years in VUL, can I assume you have other vehicles like 401(k) and Roth IRA as other pillars of your retirement/saving plan?

Chris Sells Commented on December 26, 2004

I am maxing my 401(k)s (mine and my wife's), my Roth IRAs and my ESPP (Employee Stock Purchase Plan). I've had the VUL for about 5 years and plan to use it as an investment target for my ESPP money after 1 year (to avoid short-term capital gains taxes). Then, when the VUL hits 0% interest, I plan on moving all non-qualified investments into it, effectively "hiding" them from the EFC calculation, but still providing me tax-free liquidity. Thoughts?

mm Commented on December 26, 2004

Oh, you are saving a lot Chris! As long as you max out 401(k)s and Roth IRAs you should have enough liquidity to prevent your policy from lapsing after borrowing and thus have your base covered. There should be no red flag to my understanding.

On tapping the 0% interest liquidity, I guess you still need some more analysis on the real cost of the borrowing. Even the nominal interest is 0% per se, it should still affect your cash value or growth potential in your policy somehow, right? In that sense, your borrowing will still come at a hidden expense to be quantified.

Again, I am not familiar with VUL at my age, but take a look at my writing about 401(k) loans. Even you are paying interest in 401(k) loans to your own 401(k) account, there is still hidden cost as you increase your future tax liability.

Andrew Yu Commented on December 26, 2004

Different VULs have different packages of parameters. But in general, it's a life long commitment and you have pay cost of insurance monthly plus many charges in order to keep the policy active. how much a 70, 80 or 90 years old to pay monthly COI? depending on the benefit and age and the table of each company, it'll be thousands. Different policy have different details but it's known to be a very expensive shelter for money to grow with tax benefit.
Mutual funds in VUL do not have explicit loads, but the VUL company usually charges 0-8% money before you invest into them.

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