College Planning in a Pandemic

5 Questions to Ask Now

Whether your child is just beginning the planning process, entering college as a freshman, or a returning student, getting ready to send kids off to college is traditionally an exciting time for everyone. But with the current pandemic wreaking havoc on well-laid plans for the current academic year, rising tuition, and declining household income for many, that excitement has been clouded over by a host of questions.

Hence, we offer some guidance to help you decide on the best path forward in these unprecedented times and the best ways to pay.

How is the coronavirus changing the college experience?
Although the pandemic should not be the driving force behind your child’s ultimate choice of a college, the allaround environment of college life is difficult to come by this school year as colleges struggle with social distancing restrictions that affect both classrooms and dormitories.

For many students, especially incoming freshmen, the higher the percentage of online instruction at their choice of college, the greater the number electing to sit out this school year. In fact, according to higher education market research firm Art & Science Group, this could be the biggest gap year ever, with roughly one in six high school seniors saying they were making alternative plans for attending college this fall. The good news is that deferring admission for a year is not only acceptable but encouraged by more and more colleges.

How do we choose the right school?
Despite any aspirations you have for your child to attend a particular college — like your father’s Ivy League or your own alma mater — the ultimate goal is an education that leads your child to a successful and happy future.

Speaking from decades of experience advising clients throughout the college planning process, Steve Sherline, managing director and head of private wealth management for Union Bank in Southern California, says, “Studies show that the most important factors for a successful education are related to how engaged the student is with professors, projects, mentors, and extracurricular activities and organizations. It can really pay off to find a school that provides an all-around environment where your child can be both motivated and comfortable.”

This might well include a four-year college, but alternate avenues to consider are two-year community colleges along with internships or apprenticeships. This track might be especially appropriate, for instance, if your child has deferred this school year due to the coronavirus. Alternatively, depending on your child’s career plans, a vocational or trade school might be more suited to their needs – and your pocketbook.

“Bottom line,” says Steve, “there’s no advantage in paying for a four-year education when experience in a particular field might be all that’s required – or even desired.”

What is the best way to pay for college if need-based financial aid is off the table?
If your household income does not allow your student to qualify for need-based financial aid, one of the best ways to save early for college is a tax-advantaged account. Some of the most popular options for college savings include 529 plans, Coverdell savings accounts, and education savings bond programs. As far as how much to save, you can use this gauge as a starting point: If you want to cover 50% of your child’s college costs, try to save at least $2,000 every year in your designated college fund. To cover 100% of college costs, you would need to double your savings each year.

Although time consuming, it can be well worthwhile to search for scholarships, merit aid, and grants to ease some of the sticker shock. A great source is the Peterson Guide to Cash for College, which lists thousands of grants and scholarships for students of all types. The key is to start the application process no later than the early part of your child’s junior year of high school.

What is the return on investment for my child’s education?
One easy way to put your child’s college education into perspective is to compare tuition with how much money your child stands to make after graduation, and then factor how many years she or he would need to work to break even on the investment. This is also a good exercise to help your child take at least a first cut at whittling down the list of candidate
schools and fields of study.

Begin by talking about aspirations and career goals, then estimate how much money your child can realistically expect to earn out the gate based on those projected goals. To research salary ranges for specific job roles in particular markets, you can refer to websites like Glassdoor.com and PayScale.com.

“Studies show that post-graduate salaries can vary widely depending on major,” Steve points out, “but not so much on whether the graduate went to an elite private school versus a public state university.”

Should my child help pay for school?
There are plenty of ways young adults can contribute to funding their college education. One of the more common is student loans, especially now that they are available at historically low interest rates. You will want to think hard though about whether your child will be able to realistically absorb and pay off any student debt in post-graduate life or whether your child will be left with an anchor of debt for many years to come.

“I think from a responsibility standpoint, it is really important to have your kids assume some ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to the cost of their college education, especially given the statistics that a third of students won’t even graduate and nearly 60% will take up to six years to earn a bachelor’s degree,” adds Steve.

We can help
For more information, please contact Holly Arellano at 818.706.4848 or holly.arellano@unionbank.com to learn more about how we can help you better understand and evaluate the many options for a rewarding college education available to your child.

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The foregoing article is intended to provide general educational information about college planning and is not considered financial or tax advice from Union Bank. Wills, trusts, foundations and wealth planning strategies have legal, tax, accounting and other implications. Clients should consult a legal or tax adviser.