Will a 529 Plan Hurt My Chances of Getting Financial Aid?

Don't Make This College Savings Mistake...

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It’s there, lurking in the back of every parent’s mind when it comes to college savings:

“What happens if we save all this money, and it ends up preventing my kids from getting the financial aid they need for college? Will this end up hurting us in the long run?”

It’s a common fear, but thankfully, your college savings have a small impact on your future financial aid awards. When it is time to start paying for college, you’ll be happy you diligently saved for your child’s future.

Your college savings have a minimal impact on financial aid awards, but hugely benefit your family in the long run.

In this article, we discuss how 529s work, how financial aid works, and how the two work together. Learning more about how financial aid works provides a better long-term view of the issue and reveals what a 529 plan can and can't do for you.

How 529 Plans Work

When you open a 529 plan, you set aside money specifically for your child’s education; this specific type of account has some clear tax advantages over other savings. Once your son or daughter is ready for school, the money you contributed plus the interest you’ve grown can be used to pay for college.

Even if you get financial aid, your family will need to contribute to your college costs. A 529 plan ensures you have money ready and waiting when you need it for your college expenses. Both your 529 savings and your other financial assets are used when financial aid is determined, and your family contributions are calculated.

The process begins with a FAFSA application for student aid.

Meet FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the application used by families to apply for Federal aid for college, including grants, loans and work-study funding. FAFSA is managed by the United States Department of Education and provides over $150 billion to college students every year.

You should complete the FAFSA even if you are not sure you qualify for a Federal grant or loan. Most colleges and entities use this standardized form to determine scholarships as well as financial aid.

Once your FAFSA is complete, you’ll know the amount of money your family is expected to contribute towards your child’s education. That figure, called the “Expected Family Contribution” or EFC, is used to determine how much aid your child will receive. The aid available to you will depend on the cost of attending (COA) the school you have chosen.

While this formula works on paper, the financial package that is actually awarded often falls short of actually filling the gap. A financial aid package could include grants (that do not have to be paid back) and loans but may not cover all of your costs. College savings come in handy at this point, allowing you to bridge the gap between your COA and your EFC.

529 Plans and Financial Aid

You’ve created a 529 plan, added to it faithfully and your daughter is ready to attend her top choice school. That fund will help you pay for college, but it will have a minor impact on your total financial aid award. Both the ownership of the fund and your household income matter when you look at  your 529 plan and how it will impact your costs long term.

Who Owns the 529 Plan?

Your assets are part of the equation when your financial aid is determined, and a 529 savings plan is considered an asset. The ownership of that asset matters and will have a significant impact on how much you end up contributing. Parental assets are calculated differently than student assets, so if you, the parent own the account it is more beneficial for your bottom line:

Calculating Your Expected Family Contribution:

Asset TypeImpact on EFC
Parent-OwnedUp to 5.64 percent 
Student-Owned Up to 20.00 percent 

When the parent owns the 529 account, only 5.64 percent of the amount saved is counted while your EFC is calculated, resulting in a larger financial aid package for the student. Parental age plays a role too; the age of the oldest parent can impact how much your 529 savings count towards your child’s college costs, according to US News and World Report.

How your 529 College Savings Impact your EFC

How much does that extra savings impact your financial aid awards? It depends on how much you save, your other assets and even your household size. A look at two hypothetical families reveals how a typical 529 savings account would impact the overall cost of college.

Both the Smith and the Jones families have kids heading off to the same school this year; tuition costs $50,000 per year. The Smiths have saved $75,000 in a 529 plan; the Jones never got around to starting a savings account at all. Both families have the same income and family size.

For the Smiths, having that extra savings means their family contribution goes up a bit; that additional $75,000 in savings means their overall EFC for the first year of school is $9,826, using the EFC quick calculator and an income of $70,000. They withdraw the amount needed from their 529 plan to pay for the school year.

For the Jones family with no savings, the EFC for the same first year would be $7,970, using the calculator and the same income and family figures.

To Save or Not to Save?

The Smith family savers find that their 529 fund impacts their financial aid award by about $1,800 each year; they use the money saved to pay their EFC each year. At the end of the four years of school, their child graduates with little or no student loan debt since funds were available to pay for school.

The Jones family didn’t save money but received about $1,800 more in financial aid than their saving counterparts. The need to cover their EFC and do so with student loans. When their child graduates, he does so with roughly $50,000 in student loans and needs to begin paying them back within a year of graduation.

The bottom line for college savings is that the funds you set aside in a 529 plan will have a minor impact on your financial aid award each year, but having those fund available will drastically reduce the amount of student loans you need to apply for each year.

These calculations apply to only money invested in a 529 plan. Withdrawing from your retirement savings, sticking money in a regular savings account won’t get you the same tax advantages or offer the same benefits when you are ready to pay for college.