Money Left Over After Paying for College
July 19, 2013

Ian Welham helps a client with an interesting problem.

We had a client come to see us recently with a problem that many would like to have.

This family has been a client for years. We helped their student get a generous college aid package to an Ivy League school. In fact, the financial aid package was so good, their child has graduated and the family has money left over in the college fund.

Their “problem”? What to do with all the leftover money.

When I mentioned turning the college fund into a retirement fund, the husband remarked, “I didn’t know you guys did that! That’s great news. We’d love it if you could help us.”

That got me to thinking… If not even our clients know everything we do, maybe our readers don’t know either.

So for any of our readers who don’t know this: yes, we help families and business owners with retirement planning. In fact, our retirement planning work (under Sage Financial Partners) has become as big as, or maybe even bigger, than our college planning work. The contribution and energy of Mark MacDonald has gone a long way in helping this area grow.

I think another reason why it’s expanding is because we don’t try to be all things to all people. Instead we focus in two areas only: tax-free retirement and retirement income planning. If you want someone to help you pick mutual funds, we’re not your guys. Likewise, if you’re looking for the next hot stock tip or initial public offering, we are a lousy resource.

But these days, many Baby Boomers are concerned about two things in retirement: running out of money and/or rising taxes draining their savings. We can show you how to protect your retirement so you never run out of money. We can also show you how to cut your taxes in half during retirement, putting that money in your pocket so you have more resources to do the things you’ve always dreamed about.

Apparently, I’m not the only reticent member of our team.

My colleague Paul Partridge recently attended a reunion, where he got into a discussion with an entrepreneur friend he’s know for 30 years. Paul was sharing some ways we’ve been helping business owners lower their taxes when his friend remarked, “I didn’t know you did that!” A quick analysis showed we could help save him enough in taxes to make college for his 3 children free.

So, I know it’s not New Year’s, but my resolution is to do a better job of communicating our services so we can be there for our friends who need help.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn how to have a safe, comfortable retirement without stock market worries or risk, shoot an email to info@sagefinancialpartners.com or call my assistant Nancy at 973.467.7979.

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The More Expensive College Funding Choice
July 10, 2013

Ian Welham’s tough love message about college funding

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Dept. of Education are reporting that the number of student loan borrowers totals more than 38,000,000 and the outstanding debt surpasses $1.1 trillion.

According to a recent study by Fidelity Investments, 70 percent of this year’s graduating class is getting a sheepskin with debts averaging $35,200 per student. Here are some other starting facts:

  • From 2007 to 2010, the average student loan balance grew by 15% while American households were dramatically shedding other types of consumer debt.
  • A TransUnion study found that over 50% of student loan accounts are in deferred status, which means repayment of principal and interest is “temporarily delayed.”
  • During January and February, “severe derogatory” student loan balances reached $3 billion, according to credit reporting agency Equifax. That’s a 36% year-over-year increase.
  • $20 billion: that’s the amount that outstanding student loan debt increased in just the first quarter of 2013, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Not the first year. The first quarter. The delinquency rate for student loans at least 90 days tardy sits at 11.2 percent.

Shocking numbers, indeed. But to me, the scariest number came out of the Fidelity survey. Half of the surveyed grads with student loans indicated they were “surprised” by their level of debt. Apparently, they hadn’t kept track of how much they had borrowed. Indeed 39% indicated that if they had been paying closer attention and better understood the final tally, they would have done things differently with regards to their college choices.

One would think that if you’re smart enough to go to college, you should be able to (a) read an agreement; and (b) do the basic arithmetic required to add up what you borrow. If you can’t, the number you’re signing for is probably too high.

Some parents are no better. Rather than face facts, they do their best ostrich imitation and hope the problem goes away.

It doesn’t. In fact, it gets worse, as interest payments compound and grow. If you have two kids attending college, you’re likely to pay as much or more for their education than you did for your home.

You need ideas. You need options. You need to start as early as possible. You need to find ways to pay as much below sticker price as possible. You need to access outside assistance first, before tapping into your own savings.

You need a plan. Hope is not a plan.

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When Does it Make Sense to Transfer Colleges?
June 28, 2013

Ian Welham has encouraging news about college transfers.

Your daughter tried everything. She got good grades. Worked with a tutor to boost her SAT scores. Wrote good essays. Lettered in 2 sports. Played sousaphone in the band. Clipped senior citizens’ toenails. Wove blankets for shivering children in Nepal. . .

. . . and still it wasn’t enough to get accepted at Vanderbilt, her dream college since she was a little Commodore.

Alas, all is not lost. Because there is still hope – if you’re willing to live with a little delayed gratification – via an often overlooked backdoor entrance. The good news is it may actually be easier to get in this way than through the usual means.

What I’m talking about is the ‘T’ word: transferring. Put in a year at one college or university, then transfer to your dream college for Year 2.

Some elite colleges such as Princeton do not accept transfer students. At a handful of other institutions, it may be more difficult to transfer in than it is to get accepted in the first place. But that’s only a very small number of schools.

In most cases, you’ll have an easier time getting into your dream college via the transfer route than the traditional route. That even includes top tier universities such as M.I.T., Georgetown and Amherst.

A couple years ago, the New York Times reported that Vanderbilt admitted an astounding 55 percent of transfer applicants (versus 25% of freshmen applicants).

Perhaps the most surprising trend was the increase in students from community colleges being welcomed into the hallowed halls of elite colleges. At Amherst, for example, 57 percent (12 out of 21) of the transfers admitted came from community colleges. According to the Times, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation gave Amherst and seven other top schools a $7 million grant to encourage them to seek high-achieving transfers from two-year colleges.

So if your student is still carrying a torch for her dream school, consider transferring in, because this back door is often open.

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Financial Aid Myths That Can Cost You College Aid
June 19, 2013

Ian Welham warns: these financial aid myths can cost you.

Over the last six years I’ve met personally with hundreds and hundreds of families. Inside of 30 minutes I can usually know whether we can help a family or not, and to what extent.

I admit: we can’t help every family we meet. But on average, we’re able to help eight or nine out of every 10 families we see – regardless if they make $50,000/year or $500,000. And by help I mean we’re able to find at least $5,000 per year per child in college aid, often much more.

The hardest thing about my job is watching a family walk away when I know we absolutely positively can help them. It bothers me when I see a family throw away 30 or 50 or even 80 thousand dollars or more in college assistance because they don’t believe it’s possible.

The reason I got into this business was to help people. It’s a tremendous feeling to be able to help people save tens of thousands of dollars – to not only make the college years less stressful, but to make the retirement years more rosy as well. So I feel frustrated when people won’t allow me to help them. I feel badly for the family. It’s like seeing someone win the lottery, and then lose the ticket.

Some people are just negative naysayers; there’s nothing you can do for that lot. Others have self-limiting beliefs, or like to play the victim role. But most of the parents who throw away thousands of aid dollars have bought into financial aid myths that just aren’t true.

Don’t let these same financial aid myths sabotage your college plan. This kind of thinking can be expensive to your pocket book:

1. I make too much money to get help with college. There are billions of dollars in merit aid available. You just need to know where to find it – and to demonstrate to the college that your child is the right fit. We know which schools give aid, how they give it, and to what kind of kids. There are other strategies you can leverage, as well. Sometimes we’re able to help families save enough money in taxes to make college free, or dramatically discounted.

2. I don’t want my child to go to a second-rate college. There’s a myth that if you want merit money, you have to settle for a “no name” college. Our clients are doctors, lawyers, business owners, Fortune 500 executives, CEO’s, CFO’s, money managers, Ph.D.’s, etc. They won’t allow their students to go to a second-rate college. And they don’t. They get aid – to schools such asPrinceton, Harvard, UVa, Notre Dame, Northwestern, BU,Loyola,Delaware,Maryland, Virginia Tech, JMU,Miami, USC, and many many more.

3. I don’t want to limit my child’s choices. If you want to pay $240,000 in college costs per child, that’s your choice. (I met one woman who said she’d be embarrassed to get free money from a college. Isn’t that amazing?) But as our client families prove year after year, there’s no need to pay sticker price – unless you’ve got money to burn. One caveat: You don’t want your child to be the last student accepted into a university. Those kids don’t get aid. But if you can be in the top cohort of the incoming class, you can and will get aid, even if you are a high-income family, if you take the proper steps. That said, your child has to be willing to pitch in with good grades, challenging classes and strong SAT or ACT scores.

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College Funding Debate Continues
June 17, 2013

Ian Welham share reader reactions to William Bennett’s new book.

William Bennett’s latest book, “Is College Worth It?” has stirred a good bit of controversy — and commentary. When I wrote about it last week I encouraged readers to submit their opinions.

The comments ranged from “Colleges are nothing more than money grubbers,” to the Malcolm Forbes quote: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”

This particularly thoughtful response came from Bruce Ficken of Summit, NJ.

Professor Welham,

 Thank you for the missives and information in your weekly bulletin.

 Sharing some thoughts on William Bennett’s comments…

 1.        It sounds a bit harsh and overbearing.

2.       The notion that the quality of one’s education can be measured by income within two years of graduation does NOT sit well with me;

3.       Most folks don’t really know themselves at such a young age, much less having a concrete conviction for their future profession;

4.       My numbers may be off a bit but believe that those that graduate from college tend to earn twice as much during their lifetime as non graduates…does how much they earn within two years of graduation really the best way to analyze the investment in education?  I think not;

5.       The comments, which may have a context to them, are not just an indictment of higher education, but in my mind is more relevant to the worst economy of our lifetimes with employers targeting more experienced workers, which can lead to excluding very bright, ambitious young people from employment, causing many to have to be very patient about their career development;

6.       The comments might be taken as a “why bother” by young people or even their parents, which is harmful and naïve in the long term.

7.       Education helps prepare people for future decisions, develops critical thinking skills that last a lifetime and helps make people feel good about themselves;

8.       I believe Benjamin Franklin once wrote…”An investment in education pays the best dividends”.

9.       An old saying…”if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

If I were at a theater listening to Dr. Bennett’s comments, I might “boo”.  Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts. 

 

Bruce Ficken

Tulane University B.A. 1982

New York University M.S. 1994

New York University M.S. 2005

Thank you, Mr. Ficken. Well said.

As you can imagine, the educational community had lots to say about Mr. Bennett’s premise. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, MIT economist Michael Greenstone reports that the unemployment rate for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher is about half the rate of high school grads, and lifetime income is greater by over half a million dollars.

Looking at it from a “return on investment” perspective he concludes that the ROI on a college investment is twice that of other common investments. Professor Greenstone states that, according to the Brookings Institute, “on average, the benefits of a four-year college degree are equivalent to an investment that returns 15.2 percent per year. This is more than double the average return to stock market investments since 1950, and more than five times the returns to corporate bonds, gold, long-term government bonds, or home ownership.”

Who’s going to argue with an MIT professor?

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William Bennett asks, “Is College Worth It?”
June 13, 2013

Ian Welham on the controversial new book by William Bennett.

 

Did you see the bombshell announcement by William Bennett, author of “Is College Worth It”?

In the estimation of the former Secretary of Education, only 150 of 3,500 U.S. colleges are worth the investment.

Bennett’s top 10 institutions for “return on investment” are as follows:

  1. Harvey Mudd College
  2. California Institute of Technology
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  4. Stanford University
  5. Princeton University
  6. Harvard University
  7. Dartmouth College
  8. Duke University
  9. University of Pennsylvania
  10. University of Notre Dame

“We have 21 million people in higher education, and about half the people who start four year colleges don’t finish,” says Bennett. “Those who do finish, who graduated in 2011 — half were either unemployed or radically underemployed and in debt.” Student loans are the second largest source of debt in America, trailing only home mortgages.

The way Bennett sees it, too many students are attending second-tier colleges, pursuing less-marketable liberal arts majors, and accumulating too much debt to do so. As an example, he points to Jefferson College of Health Science and Nursing in Virginia. According to Bennett’s analysis, graduates of Jefferson have higher salaries after two years than graduates of the University of Virginia.

I’m curious to know what you think about this. In recent years I’ve noticed that for many families, fewer are stretching to pay for a dream school; instead, many are searching for the best value.

But I’d love to know what you think. Mr. Bennett’s comments are controversial, to say the least. Does he really believe it? Has he done his homework? Is he just trying to sell books? Please let me know if you have an opinion.

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A New Twist on College Visits
June 3, 2013

Ian Welham on an alternative to packaged college tours

When visiting a college, ever wish you had a friend on campus that could show you around and give you the inside scoop on what that college is really like?

That’s the premise behind a new business started by student entrepreneur Eric Saunders of Westfield,NJ.

InsiderVisit is a student-run business that helps high school students determine if a college might be a good match for them. They connect you with a student at the college you are visiting, known as an Insider. The Insider serves as your friend on campus. S/he shares information that may not be as openly talked about on the school-sponsored tours, such as the truth about nightlife, the vibe or cliques on campus, the plusses and minuses of the dining options, a full explanation of the differences of the living communities, and anything else that might help you in your decision making.

InsiderVisit serves as a supplement to the traditional campus tour choreographed by the college. Your Insider is personally matched to you based on your interests, and meets with you one-on-one to help you better understand that college. Your friend will share their objective experience — not to “sell” you, but to enlighten you about the college. Unlike packaged school tours, each session with InsiderVisit is personalized for the prospective student. It’s an easy way to get questions answered, free of judgment or “spin.”

InsiderVisit’s philosophy is that their service is designed for students. They recommend that parents don’t sit in on the visit, but rather ask questions at the beginning or end. You can see their growing list of popular colleges and universities at www.InsiderVisit.com. The cost for a standard one-hour visit is $45 – peanuts when you consider it could save you from making a $200,000 mistake.

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This College Funding Report Gets A+
May 28, 2013

Ian Welham on one of the better Student Aid Reports he’s seen.

This is the time of year when our students are getting their final acceptances and student aid reports.

The student aid report is a summary of the awards, scholarships, grants, work-study, etc., that you have been awarded as an incoming student. It should list all the items that make up a college’s cost of attendance – tuition, room & board, books, supplies, meal plan, transportation, etc. – as well as your options for paying the bill.

I’m happy to report we’re seeing some great awards packages this year. Some colleges and universities do a great job explaining the finances, other schools not only do a poor job, but seem to go out of their way to obfuscate the “real” cost of your degree.

For example, one of the things to look out for is a college offering aid and making it look like it’s for all four years, when in actuality it’s only for one year. I saw one instance recently where a university offered a 2-year grant, which is unusual. I don’t know about you, but that makes me wonder, “Do they expect me to drop out after two years?” Also you want to know if you need to maintain a certain GPA to continue to receive your aid award(s) in subsequent years. Some colleges have very stringent requirements.

One of the best student aid reports I’ve seen is from the University of Dayton. Dayton is one of those “hidden value” colleges that is off the radar for many families but shouldn’t be. Its students are happy (top 10 list), they get jobs (95% within 6 months of graduation), and UD is generous with aid (one of our client students received almost $90,000 over four years just in merit aid alone). And their student aid report is exemplary. Let me tell why it stands out:

1. Easy to read – everything is spelled out so clearly, so simply, a 4th grader could follow it.

2. No surprises – no hidden fees or additional fees such as course fees and lab fees like you find at other universities.

3. No tuition increases – awarded grants and scholarships grow in value to cover any tuition increases. Net result: your net tuition cost remains the same all 4 years, guaranteed.

4. They clearly separate the free money from the loans and work options – my biggest complaint with other schools is that they co-mingle money you have to pay back with free money, so it’s difficult to determine your true, out-of-pocket costs.

5. They give you a year-by-year accounting for all 4 years – so you know in advance what you total outlay will be. Most colleges only show the upcoming year.

6. They pay for your textbooks – up to $1,000 per year. IMHO they should put that in giant neon letters, because no one else pays for books that I’m aware of.

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Wise College Advice From an Unlikely Source
May 28, 2013

Ian Welham shares some college wisdom from an unlikely source.

Every year we report on the Princeton Review’s “College Hopes and Worries” survey, where they ask thousands of parents and students questions about getting into and paying for college.

One of the survey questions is, “What ‘dream’ college do you wish your child could attend if acceptance and/or cost were not issues?” The order changed slightly, but the colleges named were basically the same as last year:

Parents                     Students

Stanford                     Stanford

Harvard                      Harvard

Princeton                   Columbia

Notre Dame               NYU

MIT                             Princeton

They also asked parents and students to share some advice for next year’s college applicants. Among the parents, the most common advice given was about getting started.

“Start preparing in your child’s first year of high school. Don’t wait until third year.”

“Start the whole process a year earlier than you think you need to.”

Student shared similar sentiments:

“Start early. As a matter of fact, start now.”

“Two words: Start Early! Deadlines creep up quicker than you may anticipate… By starting early you can reduce stress levels and assure that you have enough time to get everything finished without rushing.”

Sagacious advice, indeed. Here are more bon mots from high school seniors:

 “Visit more schools than you would like to apply to… I ended up choosing a college I never imagined I would like over ones I had dreamed about for years.”

“When you think you didn’t get into the school you wanted, you might be getting into the school you needed.”

“There is a place for everyone. Relax and think of it as a journey – not a race to be won, but a home to be found.”

“College is about finding your happiness, not your parents’ happiness or what would look good on your bumper.”

“Try not to get too stressed out even if your parents are.”

“Don’t worry so much about where you’re going. Worry more about the mindset you go to school with.”

“College is a match, not a prize!”

“Learn as much as you can about the college application process. Things have changed so much from the time my parents went through this.”

“Aim for the best fit. There is no ‘best college.’” 

“If you have the ability to go to college at all, you ought to be proud of yourself, because it is an accomplishment, a privilege, and a gift.”

It seems some of our teenagers are not only getting smarter, they’re getting wiser.

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Your College Funding Letter Checklist
May 9, 2013

Ian Welham has a checklist for when your financial aid award letter arrives.

This is the time of year that the financial aid award letters arrive. It’s the official announcement from the college or university telling you how much college funding help you’re going to get — and what your out-of-pocket costs will be.

Unfortunately, every college does this differently. There’s no uniformity. Some colleges make it crystal clear. Others make you hire a forensics team to unravel the bottom line numbers.

Here’s how to review an award letter.

1. Check the deadline date. You have to accept an award letter. Unless you proactively say YES, the college or university will assume you do not want the college funding aid offered and your financial aid package will go to someone else. So make sure you respond by the deadline date.

2. Make sure the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) listed on the award letter matches the EFC indicated on your Student Aid Report (SAR) from the FAFSA.

3. Check the accuracy of the Cost of Attendance (COA) number. Sometimes the college will omit some fees or bury them somewhere else. Make sure you know the true cost of attendance.

4. Understand the difference between grants/scholarships… work-study/self-help… and loans, such as unsubsidized Stafford loans and Parent PLUS loans. Grants/scholarships are free money. Work-study/self-help is money you have to work for.  And loans are money you have to pay back — with interest.

5. Even if you intend to take zero loans, you still might want to consider a subsidized Stafford loan, because basically it’s an interest-free loan that’s not due until after graduation. Not the case with an unsubsidized loan, where interest starts accruing immediately.

6. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your award letter is “all or nothing.” You can accept some options, and decline others.

7. An award letter that doesn’t meet your expectations can be appealed.

8. Accepting an award letter does not prevent you from filing a future appeal.

9. Important: Find out how the college handles “private scholarships” — financial awards your student receives from the Knights of Columbus, 4-H club, Boy Scouts, booster club, etc. Do they reduce the college’s grants/scholarships in kind?

10. Find out if the awards are guaranteed for all four years, or just the first year or two. Determine other criteria such as the minimum GPA, etc., required to remain eligible for aid.

We prepare an Award Letter Spreadsheet for our families, so they can do a side-by-side cost analysis. If you have the time and patience to do this yourself, make sure it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, as colleges label aid awards differently.

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Copyright © 2011 Complete College Planning Solutions, LLC  -  500 Morris Ave., Suite 205, Springfield, NJ 07081
Ian R. Welham, Certified College Planning Advisor  -  Tel: 973.467.0101