Sunday, January 23, 2011

Awarding Institutional Funds - The Black Box of Financial Aid

How colleges use their own institutional funds to provide assistance to students is often the black box of the financial aid process. Just consider the 500 or so private colleges and programs that make use of the CSS/Profile form to determine the allocation of institutional aid. If your son or daughter is applying to one of these schools or is currently attending one, then you may already be familiar with this comprehensive form that asks for multiple years of earnings and a full list of your family assets, including your home. But what you may not realize is that colleges pick and choose which pieces of this collection of data they wish to consider in the calculation of their applicants’ financial need. Colleges take advantage of a practice known as Professional Judgment. While the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for federal aid purposes is standard regardless of the college, professional judgment allows schools some flexibility to set their own terms for distributing their institutional funds. This is one of the reasons that financial aid packages for the same student can vary significantly from college to college (that, and the fact that many colleges “gap” students, meaning that they do not fully cover demonstrated need).

Don’t waste your time trying to decipher the formula or determine which of your assets a college will consider. The process is far from transparent and few colleges actually disclose on their websites the factors that come into play in their decision making process. While admittedly I have not done an exhaustive search, Princeton is one of the few exceptions I have found. And for anyone interested, Princeton does not consider home equity in its calculation. As an aside, you might want to inquire with the financial aid offices on your child’s college list as to how they treat home equity in today’s economy, given that banks have made tapping that resource increasingly difficult.

So why is any of this worthy of mention? Understanding how colleges use financial aid formulas and why aid may vary from school to school can partially demystify an often perplexing process. It also underscores the fact that if you are applying for financial aid, you won't know what college will really cost until you have the award letters in hand. The bottom line is that it may be as important to apply to financial safeties as it is to include colleges where the probability of admission is high.

If cost is a factor for you, then hedge your bets by having your child apply to both public and private colleges, recognizing that the private option may turn out to be the better deal. How do you identify the financial safeties? You should approach it the same way you find right fit colleges. First, know that this is an art, not a science; there are no magic formulas so you won’t know for sure until your child is accepted and receives an aid package. So start by understanding your student’s chance of being accepted. The more desirable he or she is as a candidate, the more likely the school will be generous with money. The most obvious way to get a preliminary idea for one’s chances is to compare grades and test scores to those of the average student admitted.

Recognize that schools which state they fully meet demonstrated need are less likely to gap. However, keep in mind that for colleges using either the CSS/Profile or a proprietary form, the specifics of their calculations will not likely be disclosed to you. You can, however, make use of resources such as College Navigator to get a sense (not an assurance) for how generous your child’s college choices are likely to be with need-based aid. You can search colleges by name and look at the net price for different income ranges. The major shortcoming, however, is that there are virtually no details for families making above $110,000 annually, but the website can still provide some insights into what students pay.

While the lack of transparency makes it tough to project your true out-of-pocket expenses when it comes to paying for college, there are ways to get a better handle on the probable cost. Approaching the financial aid process strategically will hopefully lead to more affordable choices and less disappointment in the final analysis.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Take Advantage of Education Tax Credits

It's time again for the dreaded annual exercise of filing tax returns and financial aid forms. But I offer encouraging news for many taxpayers faced with college tuition bills and other related expenses. Buried in the year-end extension of the Bush-era income tax cuts was the far less publicized renewal of educational tax benefits. For taxpayers who meet the income qualifications, these benefits provide some welcome tax relief and should not be overlooked as you begin to prepare your 2010 tax return. Eligible taxpayers who pay qualified educational expenses will want to take advantage of either the American Opportunity Credit, a tax credit of up to $2,500, or of the $4,000 Tuition and Fee Deduction, depending upon which provides the greater savings given one’s particular tax rate and circumstances.

The American Opportunity Credit, which was recently extended through 2012, will permit taxpayers who pay qualified tuition and related expenses to claim a credit against their federal taxes of up to $2,500 per year per student. Here’s how it works: Taxpayers can reduce their tax liability dollar for dollar for the first $2,000 of qualified expenses, plus take an additional 25% on the next $2,000. If you have a tax credit which exceeds your actual tax liability such that you cannot use some or all the benefit, you are eligible to receive up to 40% of the amount of the tax credit, or a maximum of $1,000. As long as your income is $160,000 or less for married couples and $80,000 for single taxpayers, you can take advantage of the maximum credit. The credit is ratably reduced for higher income levels and fully phased out at $180,000/$90,000. In order to take advantage of the credit, married couples must file jointly. A parent claiming the credit must also be the person paying the expenses for the eligible student, which can be oneself, a spouse, or a dependent, provided no one else has claimed the student as an exemption.

Families might find that, depending on their tax rate, it is more beneficial to take the $4,000 tuition tax deduction. The deduction is a direct adjustment to income and can be claimed even if one does not itemize expenses for tax filing purposes. Many of the qualifications are the same as those for the American Opportunity Credit, including income levels and the joint filing requirement for married couples. Unlike the tax credit, the deduction is per taxpayer and is not calculated on a per student basis. Therefore the tax credit is likely to be more favorable than the deduction for families with multiple students in college.

Taxpayers who paid interest on education loans can also deduct up to $2,500 in interest expense, thereby reducing the amount of income subject to taxes in the year the interest was paid. As with the other benefits, proceeds of the loan must have been used for qualified educational expenses. Furthermore, the taxpayer must be the borrower on the loan. Income limits to take advantage of this deduction are $70,000 and $145,000, for single and married individuals, respectively.

If someone in your family, yourself included, was a college student in 2010 and/or you paid student loan interest, don't lose out on the opportunity to take advantage of these tax benefits. Consult a tax specialist to ensure that you receive the maximum benefit available to you.