For the vast majority of American families, college savings won’t reduce financial aid by a single penny.
First of all, savings do not affect your eligibility for federal student loans at all (though they can affect the amount of interest you’ll pay). And they have no bearing on merit-based scholarships, the free money awarded for things like athletic or academic achievement.
As for need-based grant aid—free money given to those who demonstrate an inability to pay the sticker price—most government agencies and colleges exempt from their formulas almost all retirement savings, and up to about $30,000 in other savings (depending on your marital status and age) including college 529 plans.
Now, if you have stashed away more than the amount exempted, need-based scholarships or grants will be reduced by up to 5.64% of any savings above that amount. And some of the approximately 400 private colleges and scholarship agencies that have their own formulas for awarding need-based aid may also reduce grants to families with unusually large amounts of money stashed in retirement accounts.
But all of those organizations use a formula that weighs income so much more heavily than assets that savings typically end up not mattering much. Colleges and scholarship providers typically reduce need-based aid by up to 47% of income above what they deem a basic family budget. So, except at the most generous colleges, a typical family of four with income above $150,000 generally won’t get any need-based aid no matter what’s in the savings account.
Even low- or moderate-income super savers are still better off for having saved. Here’s an example: The University of Virginia’s net price calculator says that an in-state student from family earning $50,000 a year who has managed to squirrel away $20,000 in college savings (on top of a $5,000 emergency cash reserve) would receive about $13,700 in need-based grants. If that same family somehow built up $100,000 in college savings, the student would still receive about $11,100 in need-based grants – only $2,600 less.
So at the end of four years, the family with $100,000 in savings still has about $90,000 in the bank (and possibly more if the investments grow during those years).
As Kal Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke says: “You’re better off having savings than not.”