College tuition and fees are on the rise. Shockingly, the cost for 4-year private schools now tops $36,000 per year on average.
But the investment is well worth it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn more than double those with just a high school diploma.
The two most popular college savings programs are 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. Whichever you choose, be sure to start when your child is young. The sooner you begin, the less money you will have to put away each year.
Example: Suppose you have one child, age six months, and you estimate that you’ll need $120,000 to finance his college education 18 years from now. If you start putting away money immediately, you’ll need to save $3,500 per year for 18 years (assuming an after-tax return of 7%). On the other hand, if you put off saving until your son is six years old, you’ll have to save almost double that amount every year for twelve years.
Financial Calculator: College Savings Planner
Use this calculator to help develop and fine-tune your child’s college education savings plan.
Based on the survey completed for the 2010 Trends in College Pricing, the average cost for tuition, fees, and room and board for 2010-11 was:
$16,140 per year for 4-year public (in state) colleges and universities.
This is an increase of 6.1% from 2009-10 findings.
$36,993 per year for 4-year private colleges and universities.
This is an increase of 4.3% from 2009-10 findings.
It should be noted that, on average, full-time students receive $16,000 of financial aid per year in the form of grants and tax benefits for private 4-year institutions, $6,100/yr for public 4-year institutions, and $3,400/yr for public 2-year institutions.
Section 529 plans, also known as Qualified Tuition Programs, are the best choice for many families.
Every state now has a program allowing persons to prepay for future higher education, with tax relief. There are two basic plan types, with many variations:
- The Prepaid Education Arrangement. You essentially buy future education at today’s costs, by buying education credits or certificates. This is the older type of program, and it tends to limit the student’s choice of schools within the state.
- Education Savings Accounts. You contribute to an account earmarked for future higher education.
Tip: When approaching state programs, one must distinguish between what the federal tax law allows and what an individual state’s program may impose.
You may open a Section 529 plan in any state. But when buying prepaid tuition credits (less popular than savings accounts), you often need to apply the credits to a specific college or group of colleges.
Unlike certain other tax-favored higher education programs, such as the Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits, federal tax law doesn’t limit the benefit only to tuition. Room, board, lab fees, books, and supplies can be purchased with funds from your 529 Savings Account. (Individual state programs could be narrower.)
The key parties to the program are the Designated Beneficiary, the student-to-be, and the Account Owner, who is entitled to choose and change the beneficiary and who is normally the principal contributor to the program.
There are no income limits on who may be an account owner. There’s only one designated beneficiary per account. Thus, a parent with three college-bound children might set up three accounts. (Some state programs don’t allow the same person to be both beneficiary and account owner.)
Tax Rules Relating to 529 College Savings Plans
Income Tax. Contributions made by the account owner or other contributor are not deductible for federal income tax purposes. Earnings on contributions grow tax-free while in the program.
Distributions from the fund are tax-free to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, required fees, books, supplies, equipment, and special needs services. For someone who is at least a half-time student, room and board also qualify.
In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) added expenses for computer technology/equipment or Internet access to the list of qualifying expenses. Software designed for sports, games, or hobbies does not qualify, unless it is predominantly educational in nature. In general, however, expenses for computer technology are not qualified expenses for the American Opportunity Credit, Hope Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, or tuition and fees deduction.
Gift Tax. For gift tax purposes, contributions are treated as completed gifts even though the account owner has the right to withdraw them – thus they qualify for the up-to-$13,000 annual gift tax exclusion. One contributing more than $13,000 may elect to treat the gift as made in equal installments over that year and the following 4 years, so that up to $65,000 can be given tax-free in the first year.
Estate Tax. Funds in the account at the designated beneficiary’s death are included in the beneficiary’s estate – an odd result, since those funds may not be available to pay the tax.
Funds in the account at the account owner’s death are not included in the owner’s estate, except for a portion thereof where the gift tax exclusion installment election is made for gifts over $13,000. For example, if the account owner made the election for a gift of $65,000 in 2011, a part of that gift is included in the estate if he or she dies within 5 years.
A Section 529 program can be an especially attractive estate-planning move for grandparents. There are no income limits, and the account owner giving up to $65,000 avoids gift tax and estate tax by living 5 years after the gift, yet has the power to change the beneficiary.
State Tax. State tax rules are all over the map. Some reflect the federal rules, some quite different rules. For specifics of each state’s program, see http://www.collegesavings.org.
The total contributions for the beneficiary of a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) cannot be more than $2,000 in any year, no matter how many accounts have been established. (A beneficiary is someone who is under age 18 or is a special needs beneficiary.)
The beneficiary will not owe tax on the distributions if they are less than a beneficiary’s qualified education expenses at an eligible institution. This benefit applies to higher education expenses as well as to elementary and secondary education expenses.
Here are some things to remember about distributions from Coverdell accounts:
- Distributions are tax-free as long as they are used for qualified education expenses, such as tuition, books, and fees.
- There is no tax on distributions if they are for an eligible educational institution. This includes any public, private, or religious school that provides elementary or secondary education as determined under state law.
- The Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits can be claimed in the same year the beneficiary takes a tax-free distribution from a Coverdell ESA, as long as the same expenses are not used for both benefits.
- If the distribution exceeds education expenses, a portion will be taxable to the beneficiary and will be subject to an additional 10% tax. Exceptions to the additional 10% tax include the death or disability of the beneficiary or if the beneficiary receives a qualified scholarship.
Considering the wide differences among state plans, federal and state tax issues, and the dollar amounts at stake, please call us before getting started with any type of college savings plan.