Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Washington College Savings Plans (WA529).
As tuition rises, paying for college can seem increasingly daunting, but a number of tools can help. Financial aid through a student’s school, community-level scholarships, student loans and dedicated savings accounts can all help lower the cost of attending college.
Most families will need to rely on a combination of these, says Rodger O’Connor, associate director for marketing and communications at Washington College Savings Plans.
To be considered for financial aid, O’Connor says, students should fill out either the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or a Washington state application for financial aid (WASFA), both of which are available online. The WASFA is specifically for undocumented students who cannot access federal financial aid.
According to O’Connor, when a student fills out the FAFSA they are automatically considered for the Washington State College Grant, which awards funding for college on a sliding scale for families making up to approximately $102,000 annually.
And according to Michael Meotti, executive director at the Washington Student Achievement Council, the majority of students attending private college receive some kind of financial aid. “Many would be surprised to learn that most private college students across a wide range of family incomes do get a scholarship from their college,” he says. Public colleges offer financial aid, too.
Another way to lower your tuition bill is through scholarships. Even small scholarships can help defray educational costs. Luke Minor, director at Washington College Savings Plans, encourages students to consult the Washboard website. A free resource maintained by the Washington Student Achievement Council, the Washboard lists scholarships available throughout the state, including some that students may not even have considered, Minor says.
Student loans can also factor into how families pay for college, but they present more risk than scholarships and financial aid. “Student loans do allow you to shift the cost of college to a later time period in your life,” says Meotti. “The problem is that this results in a large monthly loan payment for young graduates who haven’t reached their full earnings potential yet.”
Minor notes that student debt is “the second highest form of consumer debt, behind only mortgage debt, and ahead of credit cards and auto loans.” This is why saving for college — as early as possible, at whatever level you can afford — is so important. It can keep students from having to take out loans, or lessen their impact. “A dollar saved today is a dollar or more that you don’t have to borrow down the road,” says Minor.
In Washington, parents can save through tax-advantaged 529 plans, such as the DreamAhead College Investment Plan, which operate similarly to an IRA account, with account owners making contributions to a selection of investment portfolios. The state also offers an additional 529 option, the GET program, a guaranteed tuition plan in which parents and guardians purchase units of tuition. The funds can be used anywhere, but their value is based on the cost of one year’s tuition and fees at the state’s most expensive public university. “GET gives you certainty — for less than $46,000 today you could prepay four years at a Washington university for a child or grandchild who may start college in 2041 or later,” says Meotti.
Minor also addresses some worries families may have about how a 529 plan could impact financial aid outcomes. “People are worried that if they save, it’s going to backfire on them, and it’s going to harm their chance of getting financial aid,” he says. “The reality is that while savings in a 529 plan are considered on the FAFSA … they have a much more favorable treatment than other types of income and assets that a student and their family might have.”
Regardless of what plan a family chooses, it’s a good idea to start saving well before a student applies to college. There’s a benefit to this that isn’t financial, says Minor: Having a college savings plan allows students to feel supported in their educational goals, which can lead to better academic outcomes. “It’s not even related to the dollar amount in a student’s college savings account, it’s the fact that there’s been an early intervention in their childhood … someone saying, ‘I’m committed to helping you achieve your future dreams, and I believe in your academic potential,’” he says.
GET and DreamAhead, the Washington college savings plans. GET enrollment is open Nov. 1–May 31; DreamAhead enrollment is open year-round.