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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Parents trying to avoid the legacy of student debt

August 20, 2015

According to a new survey, nearly half of parents who haven’t paid off their own student loans have saved at least $5,000 toward college costs for each of their children.

By Tim Grant / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Parents who are still paying off their student loans are determined to save for their own children’s college education to help them avoid repeating the vicious cycle of debt, according to a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based College Savings Foundation.

“We are finding that parents — particularly in the millennial generation — are much better at delayed gratification and setting goals and saving to reach them,” said Mary Morris, chair of the College Savings Foundation and CEO of Virginia College Savings Plan in Richmond, Va. “Many have made saving for their children’s education a priority.

“We find almost a third of the survey respondents are saving with a 529 plan and that a significant majority say saving is their No. 1 strategy for paying for their children’s cost of college.”

Nearly half of parents who haven’t paid off their own student loans have saved at least $5,000 toward college costs for each of their children.

The foundation’s ninth annual College Savings survey of more than 800 parents across the country at all income levels found 82 percent of those with college debt said their own experience made them consider other strategies for their children, rather than relying heavily on student loans or government financial aid.

Reducing the burden of student debt on the children is important, said Pittsburgh financial adviser Robert Fragasso, although parents’ No. 1 priority during their prime working years should be to put themselves in a better position to retire securely.

“Ideally, you do both. Practically, we know that doesn’t work for most people,” said Mr. Fragasso, chairman and CEO of Fragasso Financial Advisors, Downtown.

“High-earning parents could do both. Most parents can’t. For the majority who can’t, I would counsel pre-funding for their children for their freshman year in a 529 plan.

“After that and once the children have established their grade record, they have a heightened chance of getting scholarships and grants,” he said.

“Meanwhile, the parents can furiously pay down their own student debt. And if there’s any time left over once that’s done, start pre-funding sophomore and other years for the kids.”

The idea behind this strategy, Mr. Fragasso said, is that colleges want to keep the most promising students in school and not have them drop out for financial reasons. Therefore, crossing the freshman year hurdle with good grades enhances the opportunity to get financial aid.

Ms. Morris said there are multiple reasons that student debt has become a multi-generational burden for many families.

“You have more people going back to college in later years to better prepare for the job market,” she said. “You would expect them to have some debt if they retrained themselves later in life. …

“Some of them went to college at a more traditional age, in their late teens or early 20s,” she said.

“If they are still paying off student loans 30 years later, they probably had some significant challenges in their adult life” such as job losses and illness that made it hard to pay down the debt.

“What’s encouraging is that many parents do not want the cycle of debt to continue,” Ms. Morris said.

“As we get more awareness of 529 plans and the high cost of debt versus saving for college we hope more families will be able to meet their higher education goals without undue student loan debt.”

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.

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