Blame Aid Policies – Not Tuitions

Admissions policies and financial aid packages at individual colleges – not just tuitions and fees – are significant determinants of student loan levels, according to new research.

No wonder there’s a cottage industry of financial planners who specialize in counseling families on college admissions: this granular – and often invisible – information about financial aid is critical to whether your child carries a burdensome debt load with his diploma on graduation day.

The media and policymakers – and (Squared Away adds) parents – “have assumed that tuition and university sticker prices are the primary if not the sole factor driving the rise in student indebtedness,” James Monks, an economist in the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, concluded in an October paper. “This assumption ignores the substantial impact that college and university admissions and financial aid policies” have in determining debt levels.

Certainly parents should pay attention to tuition and fees. But Monk found that public college admission policies that are blind to students’ financial circumstances produce students with “a higher average debt upon graduation,” which tends to fall on their lower-income students. When a college says that it is “need-blind,” it is saying that it looks at each student’s financial situation only after deciding whether to admit him or her based on test scores, grades and letters – this policy is typically aimed at increasing enrollment of low-income students. After agreeing to accept a student, the institutions try to help those who need it most through their financial aid packages. But this aid often falls short, requiring heavy borrowing by students.

In contrast, the target of some private institutions is to maximize the number of students graduating with no debt or limited debt. At institutions with such policies, Monks found that students have significantly lower debt levels than institutions that lack this policy.

Danielle Schultz, a straight-talking Evanston, Illinois, financial planner said most public colleges claim to be need-blind in selecting their incoming freshman class. But at a time when state budgets are tight, far fewer now have the financial resources to back up such a policy, she said, which drives up borrowing by their students. As for private colleges, she said they’re also feeling financial pressure and believes that fewer institutions than in the past can afford to maintain generous no-debt policies.

Rising debt levels is the result. U.S. college graduates had $26,600 in student debt last year, up 45 percent from 2004, according to a new report by the Institute for College Access and Success.

Schultz, who just successfully shipped her daughter off to college – Bryn Mawr outside Philadelphia – describes college application as a treacherous process rife with pitfalls.

“Schools are in the business of forking over the least money possible to get the most motivated kids and the most diversity,” she said. The onus is increasingly on parents “to think hard about what kind of dollars they are willing to fork over.” These days, it’s about the major: can the student get a job after college? Her rule: don’t borrow more than the student can expect to earn the first year after graduation…Learn More

What’s Up With Women?

The share of women enrolled in college is increasing, and more women are breaking into the top tier of business, government and non-profits.

But at the same time that women are achieving more status than at in any time in history, we still know much less than men about money and finance. What’s up with that?

Financial literacy is important to women, because they live longer and need more retirement savings. Another reason this matters is that women are, according to a recent federal report, more financially vulnerable than men, particularly when they become divorced, widowed, or retired.

Anyone who is not savvy “will have a much tougher time preparing themselves for retirement,” Roger Ferguson, the president of the TIAA-CREF retirement system, said at the retirement research conference in Washington.

In a now-famous survey designed by Annamaria Lusardi, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, and Olivia Mitchell at The Wharton School, only one in five American women who were asked three simple financial questions got them all right.

And the problem of financially illiterate women is universal. Lusardi recently fielded her survey on a global scale and found the same abysmal results. “Whether you look at the Netherlands or Sweden or Italy or the U.S. – these are very different countries – women know less than men,” she said.

She is, nevertheless, optimistic, because women are also more likely to admit what they do not know. Half of women in a separate U.S. study said they didn’t know the survey answers, while only one-third of men did. This admission can be viewed as “a good thing for women,” Lusardi said.Learn More

Out-of-Pocket Medicare Costs Bite Deep

The bite taken out of Social Security checks to pay Medicare premiums and co-payments for doctor visits has more than doubled, from just 7 percent of benefits in 1980 to 15.5 percent currently.

People born on the tail end of the baby boom wave are suddenly waking up to retirement, which is barreling towards them. While many have no idea how Medicare works or how much they will pay for health care, the program’s future has emerged as a key issue in a presidential campaign with competing notions of how best to slow Medicare’s growth to a more sustainable level.

Whatever your political stripe, the costs of retirement health care are rising “significantly,” according to a forthcoming report by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

Medicare covers a large portion of health costs, but retirees must pay Medicare premiums, which are deducted from their monthly Social Security checks, as well as copayments for doctor visits and other medical services such as some tests. These additional expenses are often, though not always, covered by employer-sponsored or private “Medigap” insurance policies, which smooth out these expenses for retirees…Learn More

Social Security Advice That Harms Wives

Most financial advisers give troubling advice to married couples about when to claim their Social Security benefits, advice that can substantially reduce the wife’s income during retirement.

Social Security rules generally make it more beneficial for the higher-earning spouse – usually the husband – to delay signing up for his benefits well past age 62. By delaying, he boosts the size of his monthly Social Security check, automatically increasing his wife’s “survivor benefit” after he dies. This holds true for most couples, whether the wife works or not.

A new survey of U.S. financial advisers provided them with hypothetical couples’ situations and asked how they would advise them on when to start receiving Social Security. For the couple in excellent or average health, only 20 percent recommended “that the man delay claiming as long as possible.” This advice leaves most widows with a substantially smaller monthly benefit for years or even decades.

The survey’s finding demonstrates “the lack of understanding of both the benefits of delaying and the compounding factor it can have on the spouse,” said Lisa Schneider, research director for Greenwald & Associates, a private research firm that conducted the study with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. …Learn More

Fourth of July Quiz

Just over two-thirds of Americans were able to answer the questions below correctly. Given their “simplicity,” Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell called the results “discouragingly low” in their 2011 research published by the National Bureau of Economic research.

Women did worse than men: 59 percent of women got it right, compared with 71 percent of men.

Take the test to see how you do.

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
a. More than $102
b. Exactly $102
c. Less than $102
d. Do not know
e. Refuse to answer

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1 percent per year and inflation was 2 percent per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
a. More than today
b. Exactly the same
c. Less than today
d. Do not know
e. Refuse to answer

To see the answers, click “Learn more” below. And happy Fourth of July!Learn More

Employers Try New 401(k) Strategy

Employees apathetic about their 401(k)s are not saving enough. Some employers are bringing in reinforcements to push, cajole, or entice them.

Employers and employees share the blame for the low rate of retirement savings nationwide, consultants say, but the common practice of employers handing their new workers a 401(k) sign-up form and investment materials from the mutual fund manager clearly isn’t working. A few employers are trying a different tack.

One such initiative, by the Foundation for Financial Wellness in Colorado, trains and certifies CPAs, estate planning attorneys and financial advisers to educate its clients’ employees. NASA was the foundation’s first client, and they now include hospitals, city governments, oil companies, unions and churches, said Brent Hines, founder.

The foundation’s educators “are unbiased and don’t have a dog in the fight,” Hines said. “We’re not the 401(k) provider, and we don’t have the bias of wanting to put more money into your 401(k) or invest in a product.”

Separately, a program to educate credit union employees is expanding from four pilot states to an additional six and Washington, DC. And the American Nurses Association recently teamed up with a non-profit to train 10 nurses in five initial states to run workshops; to date, more than 700 nurses have gone through the financial workshops.Learn More

National park entrance

Couple Reach Across Financial Divide

Meet Shannan Schmitt, 40: She cannot resist $200 Via Spiga pumps, hickory hardwood floors, or the fancy soaps and gourmet goodies at the farmers market where she likes shopping with her toddler son.

Meet her husband, Randy Nauman, 36. His penny-pinching ways are dictated by the numbers and his bachelor’s degree in finance. Her Internet shopping drives him to distraction.

“Opposites attract,” said their financial coach, Kelley Long.

Married five years, the Cincinnati couple’s willingness to discuss their finances publicly, for this article, is rare. But their marital discord over money is not: A recent survey found that the typical American couple argues about money three times a week, and past academic research has found that the more couples argue about money the greater is their risk of divorce.

Nauman said money “is the biggest issue,” and he worries it may be severe enough to jeopardize their marriage. “It leads into other stressful situations and arguments that don’t need to happen,” he said.

But Long, who owns KCL Financial Coaching in Chicago (formerly Cincinnati), said Schmitt and Nauman are like other couples who marry at a later age. “It’s harder to combine your finances if you’ve already had a chance to establish your financial habits” before getting married, she said.Learn More

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