3 Ways to Uplevel Your College Planning

THERE’S NO SINGLE, right way to legally crack the college admissions and financial aid systems. It’s up to teenagers and their parents to do the necessary work.

Still, it helps to have a tour guide—which is what you get with The Price You Pay for College, the new book from New York Times financial journalist Ron Lieber. Lieber’s book discusses why college costs so much, digs into the allure of elite schools, uncovers hacks that may not really be hacks, and talks about how to plan and pay for college. Here are three key ideas that I took away from the book:

1. Families need to talk. Teenagers and their parents should discuss money, core values and priorities. That’ll help students identify what they want from their college experience.

Sprinkled throughout Lieber’s book are thought-provoking questions. For example, what’s your definition of success? What is college for? Is it about learning? Building connections? A means to a job? If a college education is a means to a job, at what price? What can the family afford? Where will the necessary money come from?

If the value of a college education to your family is a job, you might wonder just how important an elite school is for obtaining a more coveted position. Lieber’s research suggests it’s not as critical as you may imagine, with alumni from top schools obtaining between 13% and 58% of prestigious jobs, depending on the occupation. What’s apparent is the benefit of the doubt accorded to applicants who have the most selective schools on their resume. Certain gatekeepers have a vested interest in continually building and promoting their own networks, which can often start with their alma mater.

Lieber doesn’t pretend to have a formula that calculates the actual value of any given college experience. Instead, he encourages us to reflect on how our feelings influence such an important and expensive decision. In his decades of reporting, Lieber “has never come across a consumer decision that inspires more confusion and emotion than this one.”

2. The devil is in the details. Once you outline what you’re looking for from the college experience, start digging for data. Lieber’s book offers resources to help uncover the data that does exist. One problem: The numbers aren’t standardized across schools and aren’t always easy to come by or interpret. For example, mental health is becoming more top of mind for many families, with nearly a quarter of new undergraduates now classified as disabled, largely due to a mental health diagnosis such as depression or anxiety. Campus resources may be very important to these families, so it’s worth determining how long it takes to schedule an appointment for counseling, who the providers are and what type of support organizations are available.

The clearer you are on what success means for your child and family, and what value a college offers, the more you can cut through the clutter and eliminate details that aren’t a priority. In a decision that’s anything but easy, the more noise you can eliminate, the better.

3. The game has changed. It’s probably not that surprising—and yet still alarming—to learn that consultants play a big role behind the scenes. They help colleges to find students, to determine what to charge them and to prod families to follow through. Discounts to attract students are often offered in the form of merit aid.

It’s tough to understand the financial aid system, let alone predict how much merit aid you’ll receive—assuming, of course, you get in. Merit aid doesn’t consider your financial situation, like need-based financial aid does, so it’s entirely possible for wealthier families to be offered discounts, provided the student has what the college is looking for. Colleges use algorithms to predict what kind of discount is needed to get a particular student to say “yes.” This is all guided by consultants, who “help schools leverage information about your family to optimize your discount,” Lieber writes.

He gives us valuable hints about how to uncover more about merit aid than the basic information listed on a school’s website, and it starts with a school’s Common Data Set. The easiest way to find this information is by Googling “common data set” and a college’s name. Among other items, look for the number of people who received merit aid, despite no financial need, and the range of test scores for admitted students. If your student’s scores rank high for a particular college, there’s a greater chance of merit aid. Schools claim their award-giving process is based on more than test scores and other data, and it likely is. Still, checking the numbers gives families a shot at determining how a college’s algorithm is likely to rank their prospective student.

Want to talk more about your specific situation? Reach out to us today.

This article first appeared in HumbleDollar.

 

 

Did You Receive a Child Tax Credit in July? Here’s What You Need to Know

You may have noticed an unexpected deposit in your bank account (or check in your mailbox) last month from the Federal Government — the first installment of six advance Child Tax Credit payments to come. Congress increased the credit from its previous level of $2,000 per child to a maximum of $3,600 per child. 

Key takeaways of the Child Tax Credit:

  • The increased Child Tax Credit amount is only for 2021 and advance payments will only be made through December, so be prepared for deposits to stop January 2022.
  • The amount of Child Tax Credit your family receives is based on the number of children you have, their ages, and your income.
  • Be aware that the Child Tax Credit may impact your taxes when you file in 2022, potentially reducing your refund or increasing the amount of tax you owe. 

Tax credits for families with children are nothing new, but this year’s advance payments have some unique nuances. 

Families can expect to receive five more payments before the end of the year, which represent half of the estimated total credit owed. Any remaining credit will be determined once taxes are officially filed for 2021. Payments are being sent to the bank account on record with the IRS (where your refunds have been sent) or mailed if an account is not on file. 

 

How was my Child Tax Credit calculated?

The first consideration is a child’s age, with each child 5 and under eligible to receive a maximum tax credit of $3,600, and children ages 6-17 receiving up to $3,000. 

Here is how this breaks down:

  • A monthly payment could be as much as $300 for a child 5 and under ($3,600/2 = $1,800, split into 6 equal payments of $300) and/or
  • $250 for children ages 6-17 (same calculation using a $3,000 maximum credit).  

 

Why was the Child Tax Credit I received so much smaller?

The Child Tax Credit is subject to income phase outs, meaning higher income households could receive reduced payments or none at all. The estimated payments are based on household income reported on the most recently filed tax return. 

There are two levels of phase outs based on income–the first can reduce 2021’s “special” one-time Child Tax Credit and the second can reduce the regular $2,000 Child Tax Credit. The phase outs can be confusing, so here’s a breakdown:

 

Filing Status MAGI Subject to Phase Out 1 (additional 2021 credit) MAGI Subject to Phase Out 2 (regular $2k credit)
Single $75,000 $200,000
Married $150,000 $400,000
Head of Household $112,500 $200,000

 

Each phase out level reduces the Child Tax Credit by $50 for each $1,000 by which income exceeds the threshold for a given tax filing status. For example, a married couple earning $250,000 would probably not receive any additional Child Tax Credit for 2021 but would still qualify for the regular $2,000 credit, receiving a portion of it through upfront payments.

 

Is the Child Tax Credit going to impact my taxes?

Because the Child Tax Credit is an estimated upfront payment, you may be in for a surprise when it comes time to actually file your 2021 tax return. 

If this year’s income ends up higher than 2020’s, you could end up paying back some or all of the credit when it comes time to file, resulting in a smaller refund than expected or even owing money to the IRS. 

The converse also holds true. If you experience a drop in income this year but receive a smaller Child Tax Credit based on 2020’s higher income, you’ll receive a larger credit amount when tax time rolls around.

For many families, income levels for the remainder of the year may still be unclear. If you’re concerned about potentially exceeding last year’s levels and want to minimize the risk of a surprise at tax time, we recommend opting out of Child Tax Credit prepayments. 

To opt out, use the IRS’s Child Tax Credit Portal, which involves setting up an online account with the IRS and verifying your identity. Be prepared — the process requires uploading a copy of your driver’s license or passport and can be rather glitchy. Also, if you are married, both you and your spouse will need to unenroll from advance payments to shut off the tap completely. 

 

Help for Families

With nearly 1 in 7 children in the U.S. living in poverty, this year’s increased Child Tax Credit will be a lifeline for many struggling families. For those in a more fortunate position, having an understanding of how you might be impacted and the steps you can take to avoid a surprise at tax time is valuable. 

Want to talk more about your specific situation? Reach out to us today.