MONEY college savings

Six Misconceptions That Are Costing You Free Money for College

college students listening to professor in lecture hall
Getty Images

In honor of 5/29 College Savings Day, MONEY answers parents' most common questions and concerns about 529 accounts.

Despite being promoted for more than a decade as the best way to save for college, 529 plans are a mystery to almost two-thirds of American families. Which means they’re losing out on what is essentially free money for college.

Part of the problem, of course, is that many Americans feel they don’t have any extra money to save for any reason, college included, one recent survey found.

But today—5/29 (get it?)—is a great day to take a closer look at how these college savings plans work. For one thing, so-called “529 Day” comes with cash bonuses. Many hospitals, for example, will give babies born on this day $529 toward college savings. The state of California will kick in $50 in matching contributions made to its 529 accounts today. And Virginia is giving anyone who opens a new college savings account this month a chance to win $10,000.

These short-term promotions are designed to draw attention to the more permanent advantages of the 529 plan. Thirty-four states offer state tax breaks or scholarships to residents who invest in college savings accounts that add, on average, the equivalent of 8.7% to your contributions. And earnings on any 529 investment can be used tax-free to pay for your child’s college expenses, which boosts the net value of your college savings over what you would earn in a regular investment account.

Unfortunately, many parents who can afford to save don’t do so, often because they have misconceptions about the costs and benefits of 529 plans. Here’s the truth behind six of the most common false assumptions that experts say they hear.

It will impact financial aid. Some parents who have saved for college fear that their nest egg could turn into a financial hand grenade when their student applies for financial aid, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution. And, in fact, every $1,000 you’ve saved in a college savings account can reduce need-based aid offers by up to $56. But many families don’t see that much of a reduction. And even those who do are still wealthier and far more able to pay for college than they would have been without saving, O’Shaughnessy says.

I can’t afford the contribution minimums: A lot of families get paralyzed by the idea that they can’t put a large sum aside, and so they don’t save anything at all, says Betty Lochner, Director of the Guaranteed Education Tuition plan in the state of Washington. “They think it’s too steep a hill to climb, and it’s not,” she says. At least 33 states allow you to open accounts with deposits of $25 or less, according to the College Savings Plans Network’s tool to compare plans.

The investments are too risky. Many parents are naturally afraid to put money in investments they don’t understand or trust. But most states offer low-cost, professionally managed plans specifically designed for parents who don’t want to have to worry about the ups and downs of the market, says Joe Hurley, an expert on 529 plans and founder of Savingforcollege.com. For example, the increasingly popular age-based portfolios, many of which are managed by well-respected firms such as Vanguard, Fidelity, or T. Rowe Price, will manage the risk of stock markets by moving money to more conservative portfolios as students get closer to college age.

There are also several independent guides to help you pick a good plan. Savingforcollege.com compiles a quarterly list of the top performing plans, and Morningstar publishes an annual research analysis.

It limits college choices: Although most 529 plans are sponsored by a state, the funds can be used at any accredited college in any state, says Lochner, who is also chairwoman of the College Savings Plans Network, a consortium of state plan administrators.

But my kid’s going to get a full ride! Time for a reality check: The idea that bright students can easily earn full-ride scholarships is a myth, says O’Shaughnessy. Only .3% — that’s less than one third of 1% — of college students receive true full rides, according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” Even if your child gets a scholarship to cover tuition, there’s still room and board and books to pay for, both of which qualify as educational expenses for 529 accounts. (Congress is considering a proposal that would expand what qualifies to include computers, software, and internet access.)

Any additional money left over in a 529 can be easily transferred to a college savings account for yourself, or for a sibling, cousin, or future grandchild. Alternatively, you can withdraw 529 money from an account and spend it on anything you want—you’ll just have to pay taxes on the gains (as you would have done for funds from a regular investment account), and there will be a 10% additional tax penalty on those gains. If you are spending money left over in a 529 because your child won scholarships, however, the tax penalty is waived, Lochner says.

My kid will blow the money on video games. Having a nightmare about your daughter going through a rebellious teenage phase and cashing out the college savings plan to finance a backpacking trip across Europe? Not going to happen. Parents remain in control of the account even after a child turns 18.

To learn more about 529 plans and get help figuring out which 529 plan is right for you, check out MONEY’s guide.

MONEY College

Principal: Colleges’ Chintzy Financial Aid Offers Betray the American Dream

150331_FF_CollegeChintzyOffer
iStock

Colleges and states are expecting students to take on an insane amount of debt.

Editor’s note: One of the nation’s leading public high school principals, a 2014 winner of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, wrote this after viewing the financial aid awards sent by colleges to the seniors at his Philadelphia magnet high school. Two-thirds of his students at the Science Leadership Academy are minorities, and one-third are considered economically disadvantaged.

This year has been a fantastic year for Science Leadership Academy college acceptances. We’ve seen our kids get into some of the most well-respected schools in record numbers—and many of our kids are the first SLA-ers to ever get accepted into these schools.

Whether or not they are able to go to is another question.

Today, I was sitting with one of our SLA seniors. She’s gotten into a wonderful college—her top choice. The school costs $54,000 a year. Her mother makes less than the federal deep poverty level. She only received the federal financial aid package with no aid from the school, which means that, should she go to this school, she would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt.

She would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt—for a bachelor’s degree.

Now, how in good conscience could a college do that? I’ve sat with kids as they’ve opened the emails from their top choice schools. Watching the excitement of getting into a dream school is one of the real joys of being a principal. It’s just the best feeling to see a student have that moment where a goal is reached.

And as amazing as that moment is … that’s how horrible it is to sit with a student when they get the financial aid package and counsel them that the school just isn’t worth that much debt.

I sat with my student today and pulled up a student loan calculator. I showed her that $200,000 of debt would mean payments of $1,500 a month until she was 52 years old—and then we pulled up a budgeting tool so she saw how much she would have to make just to be able to barely get by.

(Are you in the same situation? Here’s how to negotiate for more aid.)

Then we looked at the state schools she’s gotten into, and we talked about what it would mean to be $60,000 in debt after four years, because Pennsylvania has had so much cut from higher education that Penn State is now $27,000 / year—in state, and we’ve noticed that their financial aid packages have dropped by quite a bit.

So we have to tell the kids to apply to the private schools because the aid packages the kids get from private colleges are sometimes significantly better than what the public schools are offering. Kids have to apply to a wide range of schools and hope. And then we sit down with kids and help them make sane choices, as the $60K a year schools send amazing brochures and promises of semesters abroad and pictures of brand new multi-million dollar campuses, all while promising that there are plenty of ways to finance their tuition.

(Check out Money’s lists of the 100 Best Private Colleges For Students Who Don’t Want To Borrow, 25 Most Affordable Colleges and the 10 Colleges With The Most Generous Financial Aid.)

Dear colleges—you are doing this wrong.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When I was a teacher in New York City even as recently as ten years ago, I felt that kids could go to amazing and affordable CUNY and SUNY schools if the private schools didn’t give the aid the kids needed. But Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in higher ed spending by state, and as a result, seven of the top 14 state colleges are in Pennsylvania.

And as private colleges hit times of financial crisis and public colleges become more tuition dependent, students are being asked to take out more and more loans, which is putting a generation of working class and middle class students tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dollars in debt to start their adult lives.

The thing is—I still powerfully agree with those who say that a college education is a worthwhile investment. And on the aggregate, it is true – especially because the union manufacturing jobs of the last century have been lost. But when we look at the individual child, and the choices that kids and families are being asked to make, we have to ask how we can ask kids to take that kind of risk and take on that kind of debt.

Of course, all of this is exacerbated for kids from economically challenged families and for kids who are the first in their families to go to college. And if you are thinking about leaving a comment about kids getting jobs in college to help make it affordable, you show me the job market for college kids to make $30,000 a year while in school full-time. I must have missed those listings in the morning paper.

A college education can—and should—be a pathway to the middle class.

Colleges should have a moral responsibility to offer sane packages that don’t saddle students with unimaginable debt to start their adult lives.

Work hard, go to college, live a meaningful life. That is what we hear promised to children all the time from President Obama to parents across America.

Colleges and universities have to be honest and fair agents in that dream. Asking students to take out $30,000 and $40,000 of debt a year for access to that dream is a betrayal of the educational values so many of us hold dear.

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a Philadelphia public high school. This story first appeared on his blog, Practical Theory.

MONEY College

The 25 Public Colleges Where Students Graduate The Fastest

Final exercises, University of Virginia
Dan Addison—U.Va. Public Affairs At the University of Virginia, 86% of freshman graduation in four years.

The schools that will help you avoid the wasted time and added expense of spending a fifth year (or more) in the classroom.

One casualty of the ongoing budget problems and overcrowding at public colleges is speed. The average time public college students take to earn what used to be called a “four-year degree” is currently about 4.6 years.

In fact, only one third of public college students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And that means the average in-state public college student is paying for an additional semester of tuition, room, board, and books—which is currently running about $12,000, according to College Board data.

Many private college students need more than four years to graduate as well, but on average, fully 53% of private college students earn their bachelors’ degree on time, 20 percentage points higher than the public college rate. (For the private colleges that graduate students the fastest, see our list of the top 50.)

One major cause of students’ slower progress at public colleges is underfunding. At some colleges, such as some low-cost California State University campuses, students complain they can’t get into the majors or classes they need to complete their degrees. At several CSU campuses, such as San Jose State University, students have almost no chance to finish on time.

But students also slow themselves down, research shows. Generally, schools that accept students with less-than-perfect high school records—such as open access public colleges—tend to have low four-year graduation rates. Many struggling students have to take remedial classes before they can handle college-level work, which adds a semester or two to their degree.

And students who change majors late in their college career may have to take additional requirements, which can force them to spend an extra semester or two at school. (You can read more about the simple strategies to help you graduate on time here.

These 25 public colleges have the best records of graduating students on time. They are ranked by four-year graduation rates in the table below, which also lists Money’s best college values ranking and our estimate of the average cost of a degree for an in-state student, after college scholarships and grants are subtracted.

College state Money ranking % of freshmen who earn a bachelor’s in 4 years Estimated average net cost of a degree for the class of 2019
1. University of Virginia-Main Campus VA 16 86% $96,963
2. College of William and Mary VA 60 83% $99,106
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill NC 40 81% $86,637
4. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI 22 76% $97,359
5. University of California-Berkeley CA 13 72% $130,629
6. The College of New Jersey NJ 53 72% $131,357
7. St Mary’s College of Maryland MD 319 71% $123,480
8. University of California-Los Angeles CA 31 69% $130,477
9. SUNY at Binghamton NY 162 69% $102,165
10. University of California-Irvine CA 32 68% $126,546
11. University of California-Santa Barbara CA 95 68% $135,233
12. University of Connecticut CT 120 68% $105,084
13. University of Delaware DE 66 68% $101,911
14. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 76 68% $122,217
15. Miami University-Oxford OH 144 68% $128,987
16. University of Maryland-College Park MD 68 66% $102,069
17. SUNY College at Geneseo NY 359 66% $98,680
18. University of Mary Washington VA 107 66% $101,952
19. University of Florida FL 28 65% $89,572
20. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus PA 177 65% $147,090
21. James Madison University VA 53 65% $101,193
22. University of Vermont VT 300 65% $96,549
23. University of New Hampshire-Main Campus NH 261 64% $121,657
24. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus PA 319 64% $133,585
25. Citadel Military College of South Carolina SC 114 62% $98,671

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations

MONEY College

Don’t Be Too Generous With College Money: One Financial Adviser’s Story

When torn between paying for a child's education or saving for retirement, parents should save for themselves. Here's why.

Saving money isn’t as easy — or as straightforward — as it used to be. Often, people find they have to delay retirement and work longer to reach their financial goals. In fact, one of the most common issues parents face these days is how to save for both retirement and a child’s college fund.

Last month, for example, I met with a couple who wanted to open college savings funds for each of their three children. They were already contributing the maximums to their 401(k)s with employer matches. I applauded their financial foresight; it’s great to see people thinking ahead.

Then I gave them my honest, professional opinion: Putting a lot of money into college funds isn’t going to help if their retirement savings suffer as a result. Sure, they’ll have an easier time paying tuition in the short term, but down the road their kids may end up having to support them — right when they should be saving for their own retirement.

The tug-of-war between clients’ retirement and their children’s education can lead to difficult conversations with clients, and difficult conversations between clients and their children. Who wants to deprive their children of their dreams and of their top-choice school?

I try to be matter-of-fact with my clients about this sensitive subject. I start with data: If you have x amount of money and you need to put y amount away for your own retirement, you only have z amount left over for your children’s college.

I also talk a little about my own experience — how my parents were able to write a check for my college tuition. But college was less expensive then, and costs were a much smaller percentage of their salary than they would be today. Times have changed.

As much as we all want to be friends with our children, we have to put that aside. I tell people that if they don’t know whether they should put their money in a 529 account or their retirement account, they should put it in their retirement account. Financial planners commonly point out that you can get a loan for college but you can’t get one for retirement.

I don’t think people realize that. I think that they just want to do right by their children.

After I talk about my own experience, I move on to my recommendation. I tell clients that one way to approach this issue with their children is to make them partners in this venture. Tell them that you’re going to pay a portion of the cost of education. Set a budget for what you can afford, then work with them to find a way to fill in the gaps. Make a commitment, then stick to it.

I explain to my clients that choosing their retirement doesn’t mean that they can’t help your children financially and it doesn’t mean they are being a bad parent or are being selfish. It does mean that they should prioritize saving for retirement.

When clients tell me that they feel guilty for putting their retirement first, I ask them this: “Where is the benefit in saving for your children’s college but not for your own retirement?” Without a substantial nest egg, I tell them, you could end up being a burden on your children when you’re older.

And there’s an added bonus, I tell them: If your kids see you putting your retirement first, it might teach them about the importance of saving for their own retirement. That could end up being the best payoff of all.

Read Next: Don’t Save for College If It Means Wrecking Your Retirement

———-

Sally Brandon is vice president of client services for Rebalance IRA, a retirement-focused investment advisory firm with almost $250 million of assets under management. In this role, she manages a wide range of retirement investing needs for over 350 clients. Sally earned her BA from UCLA and an MBA from USC.

MONEY Retirement

Don’t Save for College If It Means Wrecking Your Retirement

150311_RET_SaveRetNotCollege
Mark Poprocki—Mark Poprocki

When you short-change retirement savings to pay for the kids' college, they may end up paying way more than the price of tuition to support you in later life.

Making personal sacrifices for the good of your children is Parenting 101. But there are limits, and financial advisers roundly agree that your retirement security should not be on the table.

Still, parents short-change their retirement plans all the time, often to set aside money for Junior to go college. More than half of parents agree that this is a worthwhile trade-off, according to a T. Rowe Price survey last year. Digging into the reasons, the fund company followed up with new results this month. In part, researchers found:

  • Depleting savings is a habit. Parents say it is no big deal to steal from retirement savings. Some 58% have dipped into a retirement account at least once—most often to pay down debt, pay day-to-day living expenses, or tide the family over during a period of underemployment.
  • Many plan to work forever. About half of parents say they are destined to work as long as they are physically able—so why bother saving? Among those who plan to retire, about half say they would be willing to delay their plans or get a part-time job in order to pay for college for their kids.
  • Student debt scares them. More than half of parents say spending retirement money is preferable to their kids graduating with student debt and starting life in a hole. They speak from experience. Just under half of parents say they left college with student debt and it has hurt their finances.

We love our kids, and the past seven years have been especially tough on young adults trying to launch. So we shield them from some of life’s financial horrors, indulging them when they ask for support or boomerang home—to the point that we have created a whole new life phase called emerging adulthood.

Yet you may not be doing the kids any favors when you rob from your future self to keep them from piling up student loans today. Paying for college when you should be paying for your retirement increases the likelihood that they will end up paying for you in old age, and that is no bargain. They may have to sacrifice career opportunities or income in order to be near you. You’ll go into assisted living before you become a burden on the kids? Fine. At $77,380 per person per year for long-term care, it could take a lot more resources than the cost of borrowing for tuition.

It sounds cold to put yourself first. But the reality is that your kids can borrow to go to school; you cannot borrow to retire. So get rid of the guilt. Some 63% of parents feel guilty that they cannot fully pay for college and 58% feel like a failure, T. Rowe Price found. Nonsense. Paying for college for the kids is great if it does not derail your savings plan. But if it does that burden must become theirs. That’s Parenting 101, rightly understood.

Read next: Don’t Be Too Generous With College Money: One Financial Adviser’s Story

MONEY Student Loans

6 Ways the New ‘Student Aid Bill Of Rights’ Will Help Borrowers

President Barack Obama speaks at Georgia Tech
David Goldman—AP

On Tuesday President Obama proposed some relief, but experts say more is needed.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday proposed a “student aid bill of rights” that offers about a half-dozen small but important improvements for the 40 million Americans who are dealing with student loans.

While congressional action would be needed to make significant changes in the student loan program, President Obama has ordered the Department of Education to take steps by 2016 to make things simpler and easier for student borrowers.

In a speech at Georgia Tech, the president said the federal government will now “require that the businesses that service your loans provide clear information about how much you owe, what your options are for repaying it, and if you’re falling behind, help you get back in good standing with reasonable fees on a reasonable timeline.” The reforms announced today will:

1. Create a centralized website that makes it easy to file complaints and to see all your student loans in one place. Jesse O’Connell, assistant director of federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said many students are confused by the government’s use of contractors to collect their loans. Some borrowers who receive letters from these anonymous-sounding private companies, such as Navient (a spinoff of Sallie Mae), throw the letters away, thinking they are identity theft scams. A simple centralized website where borrowers could see all their student debt information, payment amounts, and due dates is a “basic consumer-friendly protection,” O’Connell said.

2. Try having federal employees collecting debts instead of private contractors. The Department of Education is already working with the Department of the Treasury to test out having federal employees collect defaulted student loans. Deanne Loonin, of the National Consumer Law Center, called this a good first step, though only a first step. In a blog post about the proposals, she called the use of private debt collection agencies “a disaster” for financially distressed borrowers, and called for the Department of Education to stop using private debt collectors all together: “Debt collectors are not adequately trained to understand and administer the complex borrower rights available under the Higher Education Act, and the government does not provide sufficient oversight of their activities.”

3. Make it easier for borrowers who become disabled to get their student loans discharged. Currently, some borrowers who qualify as disabled through the Social Security system don’t know that they are eligible for a disability discharge, Loonin says. Making the disability discharge rules clear and consistent “is a critical change for some of the most vulnerable borrowers and should be implemented immediately,” she wrote.

4. Ensure that the private debt collectors hired by the Department of Education apply prepayments first to loans with the highest interest rates, unless the borrower requests a different allocation.

5. Make it easier for students to get IRS information to qualify for income-based student loan repayment.

6. Clarify the rules under which students who declare bankruptcy can get their student loans reduced or eliminated. Congress and the federal bankruptcy courts have imposed tough rules that make it far more difficult for student loan borrowers to get out from under their obligations than almost any other kind of debt. But the president asked the Department of Education to at least clarify the rules to collectors so they can be applied consistently.

What Government Can Do Next

While these steps would improve the lives of many people struggling with student debt, experts pointed to three bigger, but politically unlikely, changes that could make student loans far more affordable and fairer. First, simplify the government’s complicated, income-based repayment system into one option, and automatically sign all borrowers up for the program. University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski, one of the nation’s leading researchers on financial aid, calls the current menu of “income-driven,” “income-contingent” and “income-based” options a “bewildering array” that requires students to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to qualify for the payment plans that will benefit them the most.

Second, stop charging fees on federal student and parent loans. O’Connell, of the association of financial aid administrators, says that the 4.292% fees on federal parent PLUS loans, for example, are not well explained to borrowers and add an unnecessary expense to families. Eliminating them, which would take congressional action, would save families more than $1 billion a year, he says.

And finally, make it easier for borrowers in dire financial straits to reduce or eliminate their loans in bankruptcy. Loonin, at the NCLC, notes that bankruptcy judges across the country apply varying levels of strictness to the rules, which say loans can only be discharged if repaying would cause an “undue hardship.” These variations make it unfair for borrowers seeking relief and force many to spend what little money they do have on lawyers. Since the strict bankruptcy rules were created by Congress, however, it’s up to Congress to change them.

Read next: The 100 Best Private Colleges for Student Borrowers

MONEY College

5 Ways to Get Free College Education Even If (When?) Obama’s Plan Dies

Congress probably won't approve the free community college plan, but there are lots of ways you can get free or affordable college courses.

Almost as soon as President Obama floated his proposal for free community college on Thursday night, experts began explaining the political, economic, and practical reasons it was unlikely ever to become a reality.

Chances are slim, it was pointed out, that he can persuade a Republican-controlled Congress to approve and fund the expensive plan

And community college leaders worried about their ability to handle a big influx of students attracted by free courses, some noting that insufficient revenues and high demand have forced some community colleges to turn away students in recent years.

But don’t despair: Many other programs are already making college free for thousands of students. And there are other proposals to eliminate up-front tuition that could open the college gates to more students in the future.

Here are five ways you can find free or very affordable college courses right now:

1) Some states and cities already have free or low-cost community college tuition. The Tennessee Promise, which is the model for President Obama’s plan, waives tuition not covered by other aid programs for students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), donate eight hours of community service each semester, and earn a C grade point average. Similar programs are being debated in Oregon, Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago. Community colleges in California, the most affordable in the country, charge less than $1,500 a year in tuition and fees.

2) Financial aid and tax benefits already cover most community college tuition. The average community college charges about $3,350 a year in tuition and fees. By taking advantage of the $2,500 federal tuition tax credits, as well as financial aid such as the federal Pell Grant, the average community college student gets enough aid to cover tuition and the approximately $1,000 book bill, according to research by the College Board.

3) Alternative free college proposals. Several states are considering “Pay It Forward” proposals that would allow students to attend college without paying any tuition right away and instead repaying a percentage of their income over time. And other “free college” plans have also gained traction.

4) Established free college programs: The military, work colleges, and many generous colleges offer ways to get free college educations.

5) Free online courses: There are hundreds of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Many, for a nominal fee, will award you college credits.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why You Might Want to Take Student Loans Before Using Up College Savings

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My daughter will be starting college this fall. I’m estimating the tuition will be about $25,000 each year. I’ve got about $45,000 put aside in a 529 for her. When should I tap that money?” —Henry Winkler, Colorado

A: The first thing you and your daughter should do is fill out a FAFSA, the federal financial aid application. Even if you think your household income will be too great to qualify for aid, it’s worth applying just to be certain, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college. “I have seen many cases where families assume they won’t receive any aid, but actually do qualify based on the number of children they have currently attending college or because the high costs of the tuition resulted in a lower than expected family contribution amount.”

Don’t worry that the savings you currently have in your 529 will hurt her chances for aid either. Federal aid will be reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the account and account distributions are not considered income, Kantrowitz says.

Next, she should apply for the most available in federal direct student loans. In her first year, she can borrow $5,500. In her second year, $6,500, and any of the years following up to $7,500. Because you only get to borrow a certain amount in these direct federal student loans—which have much lower interest rates than Parent PLUS loans or private loans—it’s worth borrowing the max each year and accruing that interest rather than waiting and trying to borrow the full cost of college her third or fourth year, says Kantrowitz.

If you have other savings accounts you can draw from, Kantrowitz recommends setting aside $4,000 a year from such an account for your daughter’s college education so that you can take advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

With this credit, you get 100% of the first $2,000 you spend on tuition, fees and course materials paid during the year, plus 25% of the next $2,000. The credit is worth $2,500 off your tax bill. Also, 40% of the credit (up to $1,000) is refundable, which means you can get it even if you owe no tax.

The caveat: You will need to have a modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples, a year to get the full benefit. If you earn more than $90,000 or $180,000 for joint filers, you cannot claim the credit.

You cannot use any of the funds from your 529 to qualify for the tax credit since that plan is already a form of tax-free educational assistance. If you do not have an additional $4,000 a year to put toward her education, you can also qualify for the credit by using the student loan amount she received—but just know that you may not be also able to claim the student loan deduction on that amount since you’ve already received a tax break on it, says Kantrowitz. (Right now you can claim both, but Kantrowitz says that could change in the future.)

After deducting any grant aid, her student loan sum, and the $4,000 from another savings account, pay the remaining education expenses with funds from the 529 plan.

“Under this plan it is likely your 529 will be exhausted after her third year of college, or sooner if you don’t put aside that additional $4,000 for the tax credit each year,” says Kantrowitz.

To make up the difference you’ll need to secure another loan. If you own a home, consider home equity financing before PLUS loans, since the latter currently carry a 7.21% interest rate and come with an “origination” fee of about 4.3% of the principal amount you borrow.

If you must take the PLUS, you might be tempted to try to lock in current interest rates by borrowing to cover the first two years’ worth of expenses. But you’d end up having to borrow more since she’ll be getting less federal loan money those first two years, and you’d have to pay two more year’s worth of interest. Even with possible rate increases, you’re still better off taking the PLUS loans in her last two years.

RELATED:

MONEY College

Here’s How the Government Thinks We Should Grade Colleges

Access, affordability, and outcomes are the three most important factors. But how will the government measure them?

The federal government Friday morning released what it’s calling a “framework” to rate America’s colleges on their performance in three areas: how many low-income and disadvantaged students they educate; how affordable they are; and how well their graduates do financially, in the job market, and in graduate school.

The U.S. Department of Education said it planned to issue the ratings “in time for the 2015 school year” — so, presumably, by August of 2015.

But researchers familiar with the government’s plans say that ambitious and idealistic plan will be stymied by an ugly reality: much of the information needed to rate the colleges on these factors doesn’t exist yet.

While describing the government’s plan as “thoughtful,” Terry Hartle, a spokesman for the nation’s largest association of colleges, the American Council on Education, said “It is not clear how they will get it done.” The problem, he and other researchers said, is that there is currently no easy way to mine the government’s data on citizens to find out, for example, which graduates of which colleges go on to graduate schools, how much graduates of each college earn, or how much alumni of each college are paying on their student loans.

In August of 2013, President Obama pledged to create ratings based on which colleges are “offering the best value so students” and giving taxpayers “a bigger bang for their buck.” He said he hoped the government would provide more financial aid to students at colleges that do the best job providing opportunities, educating students, and helping launch good careers.

In its announcement Friday, the Education Department asked for public comments on its plans to judge colleges by the following factors:

Access: The Education Department said it was thinking of judging colleges’ provision of opportunities to all by examining, for example, factors such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, which are grants awarded only to low-income students, and the percentage of students whose parents did not attend college. It was also considering looking at the family incomes of students at each college, and giving higher ratings to colleges with more students from the lowest income groups.

Affordability: The government is considering giving poor ratings to schools that provide so little financial aid that families end up having to pay much more than the “Expected Family Contribution” (EFC) after they fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Financial aid is generally in such short supply that 99% of colleges fail to provide enough grants or scholarships so that every student has to pay only their EFC. But currently, colleges are not required to reveal how many students they leave with financial aid “gaps” or how large those gaps are. Additionally, the ratings may ding colleges with high “net prices,” which is the price students (and their parents) pay after all grants are subtracted. The government said it may look at either the overall average net prices, or the average net prices paid by families divided into five income groups, such as those earning up to $30,000, or those earning more than $100,000.

Outcomes: While graduation rates are a commonly used metric for judging colleges, the Education Department proposes adding other gauges such as how many new graduates find jobs quickly, and how much money they earn over the long term. In theory, the Internal Revenue Services or the Social Security Administration might be able to provide the employment and earnings information for graduates of each school, but privacy concerns have stymied efforts to gather that data in the past. The Department says it may also consider what percentage of graduates are paying their loans off, and what percent go on to graduate school. For community colleges, the Department said it may consider what percentage of students transfer to four-year colleges.

To help families gauge the affordability and value of colleges, MONEY hired Mark Schneider, a former head of the federal National Center for Education Statistics, to develop college rankings based on quality, affordability, and outcomes, using the best data currently available, including, for example, a national survey of college graduates’ earnings by Payscale.com. Our rankings of the 665 top colleges in the country were released in the summer of 2014.

Read next: The Long, Sad Tradition of College Admissions Mistakes

TIME

1 Number That Debunks Everything You Think You Know About College

College Student Graduation Debt Loans
Getty Images

'Four-year degree' doesn't mean what it used to

There’s been plenty of ink and pixels spent parsing the problem of student loan debt: Why it’s so high, who to blame, how to stop it and so on. But a recent study sheds light on a huge contributor to the problem that goes largely overlooked: Public college graduation rates, even at big flagships schools, are jaw-droppingly low.

A study conducted by nonprofit group Complete College America tallied up both state-level and national data on graduation rates at two-year and four-year public colleges, and the results are sobering.

Only 5% of two-year students actually graduate in two years. The picture is hardly better for four-year institutions, especially when you consider that the cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree is significantly higher. Only 36% of students at flagship public schools, and 19% of students at satellite and regional campuses, are able to walk out of the gates, diploma in hand, after four years.

“[We were] surprised at how pervasive the problem of time to degree has become at all public higher education institutions,” says Bruce Vandal, the group’s vice president. While two-year schools tend to attract more older, lower-income and first-generation students — all demographics more likely to be part-time students — Vandal says the issue goes far beyond that. “We did not expect flagship institutions and more selective public institutions to also have low on time graduation rates,” he says.

The numbers paint a clear picture showing that school administrators and policymakers, not to mention students, now consider a four-plus year timeframe to be the norm.

To some extent, Vandal says, this is a product of student error. Kids might not know what they want to major in when they first get to college and wind up taking a bunch of classes that don’t advance them towards the major they eventually choose. There also are a

But blaming a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds for not being able to navigate the higher education system essentially on their own isn’t the answer. Vandal says there are plenty of things schools and states can do to make students better-informed consumers of the educational services they receive.

Some schools are experimenting with what Vandal calls a “guided pathways system:” Students have to pick a broad category — say, Health Sciences, for example — right away, then they get a year to narrow down their specific field of study.

“Another problem is that too few students enroll in the requisite 15 credits a semester that are necessary to graduate on time,” Vandal says. Students become eligible for “full time” financial aid while taking 12 credits a semester, and this mismatch adds up.

“For four-year students, registering for only 12 credits a term automatically puts them on the five-year plan,” Vandal says.

This has a big impact on students’ budgets and, ultimately, the debt loads they’ll carry with them for the first decade of their adult lives. “Once students’ time to degree exceeds four years, the costs to attend college increase and debt levels rise dramatically,” Vandal says. Every extra year of college for two-year degree seekers costs an average of $15,933 more. For four year degrees, it’s even higher: $22,826 for every extra year.

After four years, grants and scholarships may expire, and the savings of students and their families are more likely to be depleted, Vandal says, forcing them to rely more heavily on loans to complete their degrees.

“Reducing the time to degree and credits to degree for students will dramatically decrease student loan debt,” he says.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com