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Borrowing Money for Your Child's College Education

After you've tapped out all other options, borrowing money to pay for college is your last resort. Your student should exhaust her borrowing options before you consider taking on any debt to pay for her college education. Putting yourself into debt to pay for your child's college education may have disastrous effects on your financial future — after all, there is no such thing as financial aid for your retirement.

The best way to fund college costs, if borrowing is necessary, is to have your child borrow the money herself. Through federal student loan programs and financing programs available through various institutions, students have a number of attractive options available to them to finance college costs. Help your student apply for financial aid and exhaust all other resources and options prior to going into debt to pay for her college education.

Your child can participate in work-study programs; do part-time work; acquire student loans, grants, and scholarships; attend college part-time while working full-time; or join AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or the military, all of which offer financial benefits for education.

Tuition borrowing options

If you borrow money for your child's college education, consider the list of primary resources:

  • Federal PLUS loan: This loan is the best of all these options. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) is a popular, accessible, and reasonably priced loan where parents (with decent credit) can borrow up to the full cost of a dependent student's education minus any other financial aid for which the student qualifies. Repayment must begin within 60 days of receipt, and you may have up to ten years to repay the loan plus interest. For additional information visit the College Board online or call toll-free at 800-891-1253.

  • Home equity line of credit: The interest rate on the loan will be high, and borrowing against your home equity can put your home at risk of foreclosure.

  • 401(k) plan loan: If your 401(k) plan has a loan feature, the maximum amount you can borrow is the lesser of $50,000 or 50 percent of your vested account balance. Contact your 401(k) administrator for details.

    When you borrow money from your 401(k), that money is no longer invested. Even if you repay interest on this loan, you aren't getting the full benefit of your 401(k) plan investments. Also, the money you pull out of the 401(k) plan as a loan is pre-tax dollars, but the money you repay the loan with is after-tax. Wham! If you change employers while the loan is still outstanding and don't pay the loan in full, it's subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty and taxation. Double wham!

  • Unsecured loan from your bank: Also known as a signature loan, this loan is often the most expensive. The bank charges a much higher interest rate because no asset, such as a house, is securing this loan. These loans are often difficult to qualify for unless you have impeccable credit.

Use the following table to organize possible financial-aid resources. Make a check in the left column if a particular source may be an option to pay for your child's college education, and if so, list the available funds in the column on the right.

Tuition Borrowing Options for Parents
Potential Option? Source Available Funds
Federal PLUS Loan $
Home equity line of credit $
401(k) plan loan $
Unsecured loan from bank $

Federal student aid programs

Federal financial aid programs are intended to make up the difference between what your family can afford to pay and what college costs — and this aid is available to everyone. Although you may feel that your income level is too high and your child isn't eligible for financial aid, most Americans do qualify for aid in some way.

With all loans, one of the primary issues to consider is the loan's cost — that is, the interest and any loan acquisition fees. The least expensive loan is general the one with the lowest interest rate. Here's a look at the cheapest federal student aid programs:

  • Perkins loans have the strictest needs-based requirements. A student may borrow up to $5,500 per year, not to exceed $27,500. The current interest rate is 5 percent, and payments don't commence until the student graduates.

  • Subsidized Stafford loans are also needs-based loans. A student may borrow up to $3,500 in the first year of undergraduate studies. This limit increases through college. As of this writing, the interest rate is 6.8 percent per year. The federal government, however, actually pays the interest due on the loan until the student is required to begin making payments six months after graduation. The loan must be paid over ten years.

  • Unsubsidized Stafford loans are not needs based loans. The amount that you may borrow is identical to the Subsidized Stafford loan program if the student is your dependent. If the student is independent, however, he may borrow up to $5,500 initially with the limit increasing through the years of college. The interest rate on this type of loan is 6.8 percent annually, as of this writing. But, the federal government doesn't pay any of the interest on behalf of the student. Repayment begins six months after graduation, and the loan must be repaid over ten years.

To get the most recent rates on student loans and detailed instructions on how to obtain these loans, visit the College Board.

Setting payment expectations for your college student

If you borrow money for your child's college education, communicate the expectations you have regarding paying for college and help your student set reasonable expectations. You may feel very strongly that your child participate in the financial responsibilities involved in obtaining this education. One strategy is to create a collaborative agreement between parent and child:

Example of a promissory note for your student's college education.
Example of a promissory note for your student's college education.

Benefits of the kind of collaborative arrangement include the following:

  • Your child must apply himself and show a good faith effort, or you won't pay anything toward his college education.

  • If your student drops out of school, he's on his own.

  • If your child applies himself and achieves a B average or better, you will repay 80 to 100 percent of the college costs.

  • You don't have to start repaying these loans until six months after your student graduates, which allows you additional time to accumulate funds to repay the debt or to adjust your monthly cash flow in order to be able to more comfortably pay the debts.

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