STUDENT LOANS ARE a hot topic—one that’s fraught with confusion and complexity. Still, many borrowers should consider taking action this year. Want to get a better handle on what’s happening? Let’s start with three changes that have lately been in the spotlight:
Federal student loan payments, along with the interest charged, were paused from March 2020 to September 2023. That gave borrowers more than three years to make principal-only payments or, alternatively, to potentially accrue credit toward loan forgiveness without the need to make payments.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG and unschooled about money, I borrowed thousands of dollars to attend Northwestern University. As I recall, tuition was around $12,000 a year in 1980, and I had only $3,000 to my name. How could I pay?
The dean sent me a letter explaining that the college would lend me the money for my master’s degree in journalism. It would also extend me a work-study job, which would help pay for my spartan off-campus room.
I RECENTLY COMPLETED a course called England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Before that was Books That Matter: The Federalist Papers. Okay, I’m a nerd, I’ll admit it.
Since I retired, I’ve looked for avenues to broaden and deepen my understanding of subjects that I was taught in high school and at the liberal arts college I attended. Back then, there were college courses,
OUR FIVE KIDS SPENT a collective 24 years in college. All five have bachelor’s degrees, and three also have master’s degrees. The youngest graduated May 2023. Only one child qualified for non-merit aid—a $300 Pell grant.
My wife and I didn’t give them money for college. We don’t live near a major public university, so four of the five had to live on campus. Here’s what prepared them for college and how to pay for it.
WHAT SHOULD I DO with the required minimum distributions from my rollover IRAs?
I’m age 65, which means that—under last year’s tax law—I must begin taking taxable distributions in 2030, the year I turn 73. I’ve been looking at my retirement cash flow, and it appears that my wife and I won’t need the money for our living expenses.
I’m investigating using the money to help fund my grandkids’ college education. I built a spreadsheet that maps my age against the age of each grandchild and determined the years they’re expected to attend college.
MY DAUGHTER IS MORE than halfway through her junior year of high school. College and career choices are hot topics in our household. My wife and I have a dilemma: Should we encourage our daughter to pursue a college degree that matches her passions—or nudge her toward one that has a better chance of paying the bills?
My daughter is no slouch in math and science, but her true love turns in another direction.
TRUTH HAS A FUNNY way of punching you in the gut. I received my punch thanks to the 2022 decline in the stock market, which put a dent in the “funded” status of the 529 college-savings plans for my two sons, ages 16 and 14.
Buy and hold is all well and good if you have an infinite investment time horizon. Strict adherents will argue that mark-to-market gains and losses are just noise. Time will smooth out the ripples.
WHEN OUR KIDS applied to colleges, the smallest detail of each campus visit mattered a lot. If our daughter admired the student leading our tour, the school skyrocketed in her estimation. If the class our son attended to “get a feel for the place” turned out to be a test period, Grandpa’s alma mater was forever struck from consideration.
In economic terms, the college decision features asymmetric information. Colleges know a lot about us from our detailed personal and financial applications.
WE PUT OUR TWO KIDS through college using 529 plans—and I estimate the accounts easily added 10% to the value of our college savings, compared to what we would have accumulated if we’d invested through a regular taxable account. Yet only 37% of families use 529s to help pay for college, according to a 2021 survey by Sallie Mae.
Like an IRA, a 529 plan gives you a tax break for saving for a specific goal—but,
WE HAVE A PROBLEM: We may have saved too much for our daughter’s college education.
My wife and I started contributing aggressively to our daughter’s 529 college savings account as soon as she was born. For the first two years, we invested the full amount of the annual gift-tax exclusion, which was then $14,000. Now, the exclusion is at $16,000, but lately we haven’t been saving as much as we used to. The reason: Our early aggressive saving,
INVESTING FOR education costs has never been more popular, as evidenced by recent Morningstar data. The research company found that 2021 was a record-breaking year for assets in 529 college savings plans. At almost $500 billion, total investments are up nearly fourfold over the past decade.
A big reason is the tax advantages—investments grow tax-free if they’re used for qualifying education expenses—plus 529 accounts are treated relatively leniently under the college financial-aid formulas. You can learn more about the accounts from other authors who have real life experience saving through 529 plans.
AT THE BEGINNING of 2022, I wrote about our resolution to go back to grad school. The short update: Jiab and I are indeed doing it. We’re enrolled in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at the University of Texas at Dallas.
We scrambled to get the application paperwork done before classes started Jan. 18. Neither of us had applied to school for ourselves since the introduction of online registration, but we found it fairly easy.
THE NATIONAL STUDENT Clearinghouse Research Center recently published a report on postsecondary enrollment for fall 2021, including enrollment at community colleges, undergraduate institutions and graduate schools.
If you’re a believer in postsecondary education, the headline numbers weren’t encouraging. Enrollment fell by 2.7%, or 476,100 students. Over the two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s declined by 5.1%, or 937,500 students.
While the report offers no reasons for these declines, my view is that colleges are struggling to justify their value proposition to students and their families,
NOT ALL DEBT IS created equal—and that’s especially true when it comes to student loans.
For the vast majority of debt, we can calculate the ongoing monthly payment if we know the interest rate, number of payment periods, current balance and if the payment is due at the beginning or end of the period. But for federal student loans, we may need to know one more variable: the borrower’s discretionary income.
With federal student loans,
OVER CHRISTMAS, I got the sort of question I love to answer. My daughter’s thoughtful boyfriend had set aside some money for his niece’s college education. What was the best way to invest it?
I said that we’d paid for much of our children’s education with money invested in 529 college savings plans. The investment gains went untaxed because we’d spent the money on tuition, room and board. On top of that, our 529 contributions were deductible against our state-income tax in Pennsylvania,