A 529 plan is a type of tax-advantaged investment account specifically designed for college savings. With tax-free growth and withdrawals for higher education, it’s widely considered one of the best accounts to use when saving for higher education.
However, many parents worry that having a chunk of change set aside for college could impact their child’s eligibility for scholarships or other financial aid. And what if the child does get a scholarship and the full amount isn’t needed for school? Can you still access the leftover money?
Here’s the high-level answer: 529s don’t impact merit-based scholarships, and they can minimize the impact of savings on need-based grants. Plus, if you get a scholarship, you can withdraw the amount of the scholarship without any penalty.
Before we dive into the details, however, there are a few things to know about financial aid.
What You Should Know About Financial Aid
First, there are several types of financial aid. These include scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs. The important difference to remember is that loans must be paid back, but scholarships and grants do not.
There are a number of factors that go into determining a student’s eligibility to receive financial aid, which types they qualify for, and the amount they can get. And it’s typical for students to use several of these in combination to pay for college, along with savings and family income.
For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on scholarships and grants, which don't have to be paid back. While terminology can be confusing, at a basic level, we can define the difference as merit-based scholarships or need-based grants.
How a 529 Impacts Scholarships
The good news is that for merit-based scholarships, 529 savings have no impact on how much you qualify for. While it doesn’t hurt to be a straight-A student, depending on the organization providing the scholarship, a variety of “merits” besides grades may be taken into account.
Some non-academic merits that might be considered include sports, extracurricular activities and interests, clubs, essays and other competitions, majors or fields of study, and more. Plus, there are tons of scholarships out there, given by the colleges and universities themselves, alumni organizations, private donors, companies, communities, and other organizations.
Because these merit-based scholarships don't take into account your level of need, you don't have to worry about whether the 529 is going to impact a formula based on your family's financial situation.
Need-Based Financial Aid and 529s
Need-based grants are often provided by the federal government, but some states also have grant programs. Many other organizations, institutions, and communities also offer grants to students based on need.
For the federal government and most other grant-giving institutions, eligibility is determined using FAFSA or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Based on the information you provide when completing the FAFSA, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be determined.
From there, the Federal Student Aid Office calculates the student’s Financial Need by subtracting the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from the total Cost of Attendance (COA), including tuition, fees, room, and board, books and supplies, and transportation. The difference is the student’s Financial Need. However, the resulting financial aid package (including grants and loans) may or may not actually cover your total Financial Need. For this reason, it can be risky to avoid saving for college, hoping the financial aid will fill in the gaps.
The EFC phase-out takes place with the 2023-24 award year. Starting in July 2023, FAFSA applications will use a new formula, the Student Aid Index (SAI), to determine awards.
The SAI uses a slightly different calculation method from the EFC but is essentially a name change to reflect a student's eligibility, not how much a family is willing to contribute to their child's education.
529 Ownership and Financial Aid
The ownership of a 529 account also makes a difference in the impact it has on need-based financial aid. Since 529s are typically assets owned by the parent, they are usually assessed at up to 5.64% for EFC. This means the student's aid package is reduced by a maximum of 5.64% of the asset's value. On the other hand, a student-owned asset (like a trust or custodial account) is assessed at a much higher rate of 20%.
If the 529 is owned by someone else (like a grandparent), the account has no impact until you begin taking withdrawals. In those cases, the withdrawals must be reported as untaxed income to the student. That income credited to the student can impact the following year’s financial aid.
It's important to pay attention to 529 ownership when accounting for financial aid. Consult with a knowledgeable college planning or tax planning expert to help you navigate the situation.
What About the CSS Profile and Financial Aid?
Some schools may also use the CSS Profile in assessing eligibility for financial aid. However, this form uses a different methodology in counting a family’s assets and might have specific exemptions for 529 plans.
For example, assets in a grandparent-owned 529 plan are not reported on the FAFSA, but students may be asked to include them in the CSS Profile. Only a few hundred schools use the CSS Profile, so unless your student is attending one of these, it’s unlikely to impact your student’s financial aid eligibility. Double-check to make sure you aren't negatively impacted at the school of your choice.
How Scholarships Impact 529s
What if your child earns a scholarship, and you no longer need all the money you’ve saved in your 529?
While you can always withdraw your original contribution without taxes or penalty, the “earnings” portion is subject to a 10% penalty if it’s not withdrawn for qualifying education expenses.
However, 529 plans offer a special exemption for scholarships. If your child earns a scholarship, you are able to withdraw the amount of the scholarship without paying the penalty.
But you will have to pay taxes on the earnings portion of the withdrawal, so it might be a better idea to spend it on other qualified expenses or change the beneficiary if the money is not needed by the original student.
The Bottom Line
While financial aid eligibility formulas are subject to change and there may be state- or school-specific exceptions, in general, 529 plans are designed to be supportive if you qualify for scholarships or grants.
For students who do receive a scholarship, the amount of it can be withdrawn without penalty from a 529 account (or it can be used for a wide range of other expenses.)
Merit-based scholarships aren’t impacted by 529 plans, and because the value of these plans is assessed at a lower rate, they can minimize the impact of savings on eligibility for need-based grants.
Whether they have college savings or not, many students find that there’s a gap between the actual cost of college—including tuition, room and board, books, and more—and the financial aid package they receive. A 529 plan can help to bridge that gap and enable the student to graduate with less (or even no) debt.