By Mike Eklund
Learn more about Mike on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor
Your child has selected a college, and now comes the fun part: figuring out how to pay for it.
As the four-year cost of college can range from $100,000 to $280,000 per child, parents must have a plan for how to fund their children’shigher education. It’s especially important because insufficient funds isa primary reason kids drop out of school.
First, a suggestion: Manage your children’sexpectations by talkingwith them early on aboutwhat you can afford to pay for college. You don’t want your kidsto spend years imagining a certain college that you know you can’tafford even with financial aid.
There are various sources of funding that can help you pay for your children’seducation. Here we’ll look at two main ones: tax assistance and loans.
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Many families earn too much money to qualify for need-based financial aid, but they may beeligible for tax breaks.
The American Opportunity Tax Creditis a tax break available to help you pay for up to four years of undergraduate education for yourself or your dependents. As a tax credit, the AOTC gives youa dollar-for-dollar reduction in your total tax bill. In 2016, the credit could reduce your tax bill by up to $2,500 per student.
The credit consists of 100% of the first $2,000 of qualified education expenses — tuition, fees and course materials — and 25% on the next $2,000. However, the AOTC phasesout at higher income levels — $160,000 to $180,000 for married couples filing jointly and $80,000 to $90,000 if the tax filer is single or head of household.
The Lifetime Learning Credit is geared toward paying for graduate school. It’sa $2,000 tax credit for $10,000 of expenses, but it has lower income limits than the AOTC credit — $55,000 for single filers and $110,000 for married couples filing jointly.
If your income is too high for tax credits, you may be able to give your child stock that has gained in value and eliminate up to $28,000 of capital gains by using a combination of the standard deduction, personal exemption and AOTC. It’s a complicated strategy, so I recommend working with a financial planner or tax advisor to implement it.Loan options
If your family’s college savings and any available tax credits don’t reach far enough, your children could turn tostudent loans — but they should be cautious about taking on too much debt. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average college student had $28,950 of debt in 2014, a 56% increase over the past 10years.
If loans become necessary, here are some options.Federal Direct Subsidized Loan
After your student fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, orFASFA,and demonstrates need, the U.S. Department of Education may offer a federal direct subsidized loan, also known as a Stafford loan. With this subsidized loan, which is available to undergraduates who demonstrate financial need, the government pays the interest while your student is in college. Since interest doesn’t accrue until after graduation, he or she can accept the loan and pay it off after graduation.
Loan limits are based on years in college — $3,500 in year one, $4,500 in year two and $5,500 for however many moreyears your student needsto earn an undergraduate degree.Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan
This unsubsidized version of the Stafford loan differs in a few key ways: It’sopen to both undergraduates and graduate students, there is no requirement to demonstrate financial need, andyour student will be charged interest while he or she isin college. Theannual limit on these loans is$5,500 in year one, $6,500 in year two, and $7,500 in year three and beyond. This loan may be an option forparents and students who can’t demonstrate financial need but nonetheless require assistance to pay for school.
Another option is Parent PLUS loans, which are federal loans that youcan take out each year to cover the full cost of yourchild’s education. This can become a large additional debt burden, and payments could stretch well into your retirement years, so think carefully about whether this is the right option for you.Private Student Loans
A variety of banks and other lenders offerprivate loans,which typically carry variable interest rates, origination fees and other charges. Almost all private loans require a co-signer.
Private loans lack the flexibility of federal loans, and generally their repayment and forgiveness options aren’t as advantageous. Therefore, your family should turn to private loans onlyafter taking full advantage of other resources.
It’s important to understand your family’s options, when to use what funds and how it affects your child’s overall financial aid eligibility. Working with a qualified fee-only financial planner can help you make smart decisions.