How Much Should I Be Expected to Pay for College?

Let’s face it, with the exception of (maybe) your home, funding college for your child(ren) will be one of the greatest investments you will make. And while changes to college funding may soon be around the corner, currently the cost of college continues to rise, far outpacing inflation. One of the most popular questions we receive from parents whose children are preparing for college, is “How much should I expect to pay?”


And the answer is it depends. Below are some common myths about college that we hear:


  • Private school is too expensive
  • I won’t qualify for financial aid
  • Every school offers the same financial aid reward
  • I should fully fund my child’s education so they aren’t hindered by student loan debt
  • Using retirement savings to fund college is advised because I still have time to replenish my savings


And some of these myths, when taken at face value, can ring true. For example, based on sticker price, private schools are often more expensive. However, many times private schools are able to provide more scholarships/grants/financial aid than public schools which can reduce the overall cost of education to an amount lower than an in-state public school.


College vs. Retirement


Before we go any further into how to ‘shop’ for college, let me address the last two bullet points. For the vast majority of folks, tapping into assets which are designated for and needed for retirement is not recommended to pay for college. Students can always borrow money for college. And while we certainly want to avoid large student loan debt (using student loans in a methodical and reasonable manner can be quite beneficial), if you outlive your money in retirement and subsequently need to rely on your children, have you really benefited them by paying for their college? Remember, you can borrow money for college, but you can’t borrow money for retirement.


Expected Family Contribution


Anyway, back to the original question of “How Much Should I Be Expected to Pay”. The first step is determining your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which you can do for free using this FAFSA Tool. How much you can expect to be eligible for is based on the below calculation:


Total Cost of College- Expected Family Contribution (EFC)= Financial Aid Eligibility


Your EFC does not correlate to what you should expect to pay. It’s a number which calculates how much financial aid you are eligible for, and you may be expected to pay more than your EFC. You can see from this equation that your EFC can play a huge role in determining the amount of financial aid you are eligible to receive.


So how is EFC calculated?


There is a lot to digest in this graphic, but essentially what this is saying is when saving for college place assets in the parent’s name and NOT the student’s name as non-retirement assets in the parent’s name are accounted for at 5.64% while assets in the student’s name are accounted for at 20% (Retirement assets are not included in this equation). Also, many people try to be savvy and start redirecting/retitling assets or buying expensive life insurance policies to shelter assets which typically is not beneficial over the long-term just to avoid this 5.64% accountability. Income is the biggest factor in determining EFC and thus proper tax planning to reduce adjusted gross income (AGI) usually is more beneficial. The FAFSA also looks at tax returns from 2 years prior so it is advised to begin planning for college and pricing out options during the student’s freshman or sophomore year as waiting even a year can limit your planning options.


Student Loan Options


Student loans can be either federal loans or private loans. Each program has their own set of eligibility criteria, reward amounts, and payment options. I encourage you to visit our article Student Loan Debt for Veterinarians: What to know and how to repay for a comprehensive look at student loan options.


Tax Breaks


There are also many tax deductions available for parents of students in college, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and Lifetime Learning Credit. There are numerous factors to determine which benefits you may be eligible for, so be sure to speak with your tax professional. These credits can provide a dollar for dollar reduction in tax liability (AOTC also provides for up to $1000 in refundable credits). Keep in mind, however, that in order for 529 plan withdrawals to be federally tax-free, the distributions must be used for expenses that were not counted toward either of these credits. For example, in order to receive the full $2500 tax credit per student for AOTC, one must incur $4,000 in qualified education expenses. If you use 529 plan distributions for these $4,000 in qualified expenses and are eligible for and claim the credit, your distributions are no longer tax-free and will be taxed at the federal level. This is also known as ‘double-dipping’ which of course is not allowed. This is why it is important to document your educational expenses.




So to answer the question “How Much Should I Be Expected to Pay” you would need to conduct research for each school you are considering and what options are available. Each school awards financial aid differently, and you may be surprised at which schools are truly more affordable. And in going through this process, do your best to make sure you are taking full advantage of the grants/scholarships/loans/tax credits available to you. College is already expensive enough.


If you have children who are beginning the process of preparing for college and have questions about how college planning fits into your overall financial plan, we would love the opportunity to see how we might be able to help.


Andrew Langdon is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™  and the founder of VetWorth, a fiduciary fee-only financial planning firm dedicated to serving the unique needs of veterinarians and their families.

Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Andrew Langdon, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.

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