4 tips on how to pay for college

Key Points

  • Student debt of over $1.4 trillion remains higher than credit card debt in the United States.1
  • When it comes to saving and paying for college, be patient and be realistic about what you can expect from financial aid.
  • Start early and consider signing up for tax-advantaged accounts to make the most of your college savings.


It doesn't matter if your kids are toddlers or teens: How you'll pay for their college likely weighs heavily on you. And, conventional wisdom says you shouldn't jeopardize your retirement income to help pay for your kids' degrees.

Ways to save for college

When it comes to saving and paying for college, there are two rules, according to Chris Stack, managing consultant at savingforcollege.com.

  • Don't panic
  • Be patient

Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Whatever you can put away now to pay for college costs in the coming years will help. It may not seem that way when you consider the cost. For example, the average published tuition and fees per year for a private university rose to $35,830 for 2018-2019, according to the College Board.2 But, getting scared by the numbers isn't the answer. Instead, Stack and other college savings experts recommend these four strategies on how to save for college.

  1. Avoid loans as much as possible
    Wondering how to pay for college without loans? in fact, the $1.4 trillion in outstanding student and parent education debt exceeds all Americans' outstanding credit card balances combined.1 And the average student loan balance is $28,565, according to The Student Loan Report's 2018 student loan debt statistics.

    "No one wants a child to graduate college and start out in life behind a mountain of debt," says Stack. The solution, he says, is being prepared for, and realistic about, college costs. Otherwise, you risk taking on debt that could jeopardize not only your children's futures, but yours as well.

  2. Start saving now
    If you aren't already, start putting away as much as you can for tuition costs. Even if your child is already a tween or teenager, it's not too late. Painful as it can be to save large sums, it will cost you less in the long run than borrowing, says Stack. To find out how much you'll need for your children's education, use this college savings calculator.

  3. Save with tax-smart accounts
    You can make your savings go further by taking advantage of tax breaks on tuition savings with options such as 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (CESAs).

    Nearly every state offers at least one 529 account. Earnings grow tax-deferred and withdrawals are free from federal income tax if you use them for qualified education expenses, which now includes up to $10,000 annually for K through 12 tuition expenses. Many states also offer tax incentives, including tax deductions for contributions and tax-exempt withdrawals. For more information and rankings on 529s, go to savingforcollege.com.


    CESAs, formerly known as education IRAs, are similar to 529s. Earnings in CESAs grow tax-free and qualified withdrawals are exempt from federal tax, and many times from state tax, too. CESAs are often attractive because you can use funds for qualified education expenses K through 12 as well as for college. Income restrictions apply and contributions are limited to $2,000 a year, so many parents use these accounts in tandem with a 529.

  4. Be realistic about financial aid
    It's easy to think that your child can rely on financial aid to cover any shortfall you may have. But, the problem is, the majority of student aid these days is loans. So, when you're counting on financial aid, you're really relying on borrowing for education costs — not scholarships and grants, which are harder to obtain.

    Many parents also worry that a big college fund will decrease the family's chance for financial aid. But, for the most part, it's better to prepare for giant costs like tuition than to count on something you can't be sure of.

    That said, you can help your family's chances of qualifying for financial aid if you save in the right types of accounts. When the federal financial aid formula assesses how much a family should contribute to college costs, it looks at what both the parent and child have saved for education costs and evaluates those amounts differently. Money saved in the child's name is assessed at a 20 percent rate, whereas money saved in the parent's name, which often is the case for 529 and Coverdell accounts, is assessed at a much lower rate of up to 5.6 percent. So, every $10,000 saved in your child's name would be seen as a $2,000 contribution to college costs. That same $10,000 saved in your name would be viewed as only a $560 contribution.

Talk with your financial advisor about college savings to figure out what makes sense for you.

12019 second quarter report on household debt and credit from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
2Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing, 2016.
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Ameriprise Financial and its representatives do not provide tax or legal advice. Consult your tax advisor or attorney regarding specific tax issues.
Investors should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with a 529 Plan before investing. More information regarding a particular 529 Plan is available in the issuer's official statement, which may be obtained from an Ameriprise financial advisor. Investors should read the 529 Plan's official statement carefully before investing.
Investors contributing to a 529 Plan offered by a state in which they are not a resident, should consider, before investing, whether their or their designated beneficiary(s) home state offers any state tax or other benefits only available for investments in such state's qualified tuition program.
The earnings portion of money withdrawn from a 529 plan that is not spent on eligible college expenses will be subject to income tax, an additional 10% federal tax penalty, and the possibility of a recapture of any state tax deductions or credits taken.
Chris Stack and savingforcollege.com are not affiliated with Ameriprise Financial.
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