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What’s New in the World of Higher Education?

If you’re a parent or grandparent of a college student or soon-to-be college student, you might be interested to learn what’s new in the world of higher education.

Higher college costs

Total average costs for the 2015/2016 school year increased about 3% from the previous year: $24,061 for public colleges (in-state), $38,855 for public colleges (out-of-state), and $47,831 for private colleges.1

Total average costs include direct billed costs for tuition, fees, room, and board; and indirect costs for books, transportation, and personal expenses. Together, these items are officially referred to as the “total cost of attendance.” Note that the cost figure for private colleges cited by the College Board is an average; many private colleges cost substantially more–over $60,000 per year.

Higher student debt

Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2014 (the most recent year for which figures are available) had student loan debt, and the average amount was $28,950 per borrower.2 It’s likely this amount will be higher for the classes of 2015 and 2016.

Student loan debt is the only type of consumer debt that has grown since the peak of consumer debt in 2008; balances have eclipsed both auto loans and credit cards, making student loan debt the largest category of consumer debt after mortgages. As of September 2015, total outstanding student loan debt was over $1.2 trillion.3

Reduced asset protection allowance

Behind the scenes, a stealth change in the federal government’s formula for determining financial aid eligibility has been quietly (and negatively) impacting families everywhere. You may not have heard of the asset protection allowance before. But this figure, which allows parents to shield a certain amount of their nonretirement assets from the federal aid formula, has been steadily declining for years, resulting in higher expected family contributions for families. For the 2012/2013 year, the asset protection allowance for a 47-year-old married parent was $43,400. Today, for the 2016/2017 year, that same asset protection allowance is $18,300–a drop of $25,100. The result is a $1,415 decrease in a student’s aid eligibility ($25,100 x 5.64%, the federal contribution percentage required from parent assets).

New FAFSA timeline

Beginning with the 2017/2018 school year, families will be able to file the government’s financial aid application, the FAFSA, as early as October 1, 2016, rather than having to wait until after January 1, 2017. The intent behind the change is to better align the financial aid and college admission timelines and to provide families with information about aid eligibility earlier in the process.

One result of the earlier timeline is that your 2015 federal income tax return will do double duty as a reference point for your child’s federal aid eligibility–it will be the basis for the FAFSA for both the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 years.

School Year Tax Return Required FAFSA Earliest Submission
2016/2017 2015 January 1, 2016
2017/2018 2015 October 1, 2016
2018/2019 2016 October 1, 2017


American Opportunity Tax Credit now permanent

The American Opportunity Tax Credit was made permanent by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. It is a partially refundable tax credit (meaning you may be able to get some of the credit even if you don’t owe any tax) worth up to $2,500 per year for qualified tuition and related expenses paid during your child’s first four years of college. To qualify for the full credit, single filers must have a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 or less, and joint filers must have a MAGI of $160,000 or less. A partial credit is available for single filers with a MAGI over $80,000 but less than $90,000, and for joint filers with a MAGI over $160,000 but less than $180,000.

New REPAYE plan for federal loans

The pool of borrowers eligible for the government’s Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan for student loans has been expanded as of December 2015. The new plan, called REPAYE (Revised Pay As You Earn), is available to all borrowers with federal Direct Loans, regardless of when the loans were obtained (the original PAYE plan is available only to borrowers who took out loans after 2007).

Under REPAYE, monthly student loan payments are capped at 10% of a borrower’s discretionary income, with any remaining debt forgiven after 20 years of on-time payments for undergraduate loans and 25 years of on-time payments for graduate loans. To learn more about REPAYE or income-driven repayment options in general, visit the federal student aid website at studentaid.gov.



1 College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

2 The Institute for College Access and Success, Student Debt and the Class of 2014, October 2015

3 Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, November 2015


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