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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Student loan policies change, but options remain plentiful

By Steve Everly
Knight Ridder News Service

DO IT NOW

• Start saving for college as early as possible. Use tax-advantaged savings programs and develop a long-term investment plan.

• Get your child involved. Don’t tackle saving for college alone.

• Understand how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid when the time comes, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Resources

• Contact your high school guidance counselor, a college financial aid administrator or the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 4-FED-AID

• The U.S. Department of Education: www.fafsa.org

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. It's time to revisit a cardinal rule about paying for college.

The time-honored advice is to plan carefully and years in advance of when the money will be needed.

But in reality, all too often, parents don't get serious about finding ways to pay for college education until their student is a senior in high school. The delay can be costly, perhaps even more so now because of changes in student loan policies.

Federal education loans have long been counted on by many families to finance at least a portion of college expenses, and when other resources such as savings and scholarships aren't available, they're often indispensable. But this option is going to cost more, partly because of recent changes in federal law that replace fixed interest rates with a more market-sensitive variable rate for a popular program that students and parents have used to consolidate their loans.

But the most obvious new hurdle is rising interest rates. For much of the decade, students and their parents have been able to tap loans at extraordinarily cheap rates. In some cases, loans were available for as low as 1 percent. That's changing quickly as student loan rates are tied to the 91-day Treasury bills, which are sensitive to the Federal Reserve Bank's ongoing tightening. The result: higher interest rates.

"The era of historically low interest rates on student loans has ended," said Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.com, a popular Web site about student financial aid.

Federal PLUS loans, which are available to parents to help cover their child's college expenses, illustrate the trend. This July the interest rate is expected to jump 1.5 to 2 percentage points. That's on top of a 2-point jump last July. In short, interest on those loans will have nearly doubled to about 8 percent. Potentially, a college education will cost thousands more because of the higher interest rates.

The higher costs could be tough to avoid. Sue Armstrong, financial aid director for William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., said other financial aid will only go so far and loans will continue to be important in paying for college expenses. But that shouldn't prevent parents and students from trying to minimize the loans and their cost. For those who spend the time, there are strategies that can help.

"A family can't (do) too much," she said.

For some of those strategies, planning isn't just a good thing it's mandatory.

If personal savings are going to be part of your plan to pay for college, then it's essential to start early. And state-sponsored 529 programs such as Missouri Saving For Tuition and Kansas Learning Quest can give you an extra push.

The earnings on the savings are tax-free as they grow, and the accounts can be spent on qualified college expenses without being taxed. Residents in each state also can qualify for deductions up to a specified amount on their state income taxes.

Another advantage is that the accounts can be treated as parental assets rather than the student's assets, meaning they won't be used first as a dollar-for-dollar offset of any potential financial aid.

Roughly up to 5.65 percent of parental assets are expected to be used to pay for college each year under federal aid formulas. In contrast, 35 percent of money held in a child's name must be depleted.

Similar treatment will be extended in July to accounts established for children under the Uniformed Gifts to Minors Act that are transferred to a 529 fund. However, transferring from an UGMA (or Uniform Transfer to Minors Act) to a 529 could trigger gains or losses that would need to be reported on the child's income tax return, according to Joe Hurley, a college financing expert whose Web site is www .savingforcollege.com.

What do you do if you haven't saved?

Kantrowitz said that situation is common, and he even knows of parents that don't seriously consider how to pay for college until their children receive the acceptance letters. For those who procrastinate, it's going to be a scramble. But grants, scholarships and loans are going to have to fill the gap.

Grants are especially attractive because this money doesn't have to be paid back. The federal Pell Grant will provide up to $4,050 per year for college, and the related Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant can provide up to an additional $4,000.

To apply, you'll have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Then there are the scholarships that are awarded regardless of financial need.

FastWeb.com and CollegeAn swer .com offer free searches for scholarships. High school counselors also have file cabinets full of scholarship information and applications.