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College Turmoil Increases Need for Financial Planning

College Turmoil Increases Need for Financial Planning

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

August 24, 2009

Aug. 24—Families have always agonized over how to save money for their children to attend college, but these days planning can be even more difficult.

Colleges and universities have been raising fees sharply and often, making it particularly difficult for families to plan. The phenomenon also has widened the gap between low-income families who can secure enough student aid to pay for college and wealthier families who can pay for school themselves.

For the middle class in particular, priorities may have to change, said Sean Connors, founder of College Planning Specialists in Concord.

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“They have to be realistic,” Connors said. “Where can the student go? And what’s realistic for the pocketbook? People generally look at one or the other. Now, more than ever, you have to be on the same page.”

Every family, experts said, should check its eligibility for government need-based scholarships: California’s Cal Grant and the federal Pell Grant. That exploration should begin during a student’s early high-school years.

But grants and loans likely will not cover everything, especially if fees continue to rise.

“Student loans have an annual maximum per grade level that has nothing to do with fees going up,” said Barbara Hubler, San Francisco State’s financial-aid director. “I think it’s really very hard for middle-class families to meet that extra little bit.”

Families often use what are known as 529 plans — named after a U.S. tax

code — that provide tax breaks on money set aside for college tuition. But, like all investments, 529 plans can be unpredictable.

Students and parents need to decide whether additional costs should be covered through loans or a student job, Hubler said.

“Either you borrow now and work later, or you can work now,” she said. “Working isn’t a bad thing, but there needs to be a balance (between work and school).”

Although fees in the California State University and University of California systems are lower than those in most other states, the schools themselves do not provide as much financial help to needy students as wealthier private schools, Connors said. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he said, families unable to save money should consider more expensive colleges.

“Far too many families are looking at the Cal State and UC systems and saying, ’That’s the cheaper option,’” he said. “Private schools can make it much cheaper for students to go away to school.”

The cheapest option, however, remains California’s community colleges. Even with this year’s $6-per-unit fee increase, community colleges can make the first two years of college significantly more affordable, and they can also improve an academically weak student’s chances of graduating from a high-quality university.

“It’s not a bad route to go,” Connors said. “It’s a viable option. In some cases, it’s the only option.”