COVID college costs

College Costs in the Era of COVID-19


Paying for College in the Era of COVID-19

This semester, millions of students, teachers, and college administrators are having to deal with a radically changed landscape while still managing college costs. At many institutions, classes have been cancelled or moved online. Sports programs have been suspended and dormitories, libraries, and labs shuttered. In fact, traditional campus life has been turned upside down thanks to COVID-19, and it’s unclear how long it will last.

Meanwhile, the cost of a college education is higher than ever. According to the College Board, the average total charges at four-year public colleges (in state) for the 2019-2020 academic year were $21,950. Average costs at four-year private nonprofit colleges were more than double that ($49,870).1 And while increases in costs have moderated in recent years, they continue to outpace inflation and median household income, resulting in a growing dependence on student loans; the average student borrower graduating in 2018 owed about $29,000.2

For cash-strapped students and parents, the current crisis has tipped the scales. Many are rebelling at the high costs in the face of a severely diminished college experience. Others have decided to wait until the crisis has passed before enrolling. Still others are questioning the very value of a college degree under current circumstances.

But the issue of soaring college costs is hardly new, and there are two sides to consider.

Students and Parents: Give Us a Break!

“We are paying a lot of money for tuition, and our students are not getting what we paid for,” comments one California parent, incensed at paying in-person prices for education that has moved online. On-campus facilities and services like computer labs, libraries, and networking opportunities have also been severely diminished by closures.

Already suffering from a pandemic-induced recession, many families are feeling the pinch and want relief. Students in particular have been hard hit with furloughs and layoffs, as many rely on retail service jobs to help them get by — the same jobs that have suffered the most in the face of closures and lockdowns. Many students had also signed leases for off-campus housing and are now stuck with them even if classes are cancelled. In short, students and parents are demanding tuition rebates, increased financial aid, reduced fees, and leaves of absences to compensate for what they feel is a diminished college experience.

Colleges: How Can We Manage?

Meanwhile, colleges and universities are taking a major financial hit from the pandemic. Enrollment is down. International admissions and offshore semesters have been halted. Entire programs have had to be suspended for health reasons. What’s more, substantial resources are required to set up an online curriculum, administer the courses, and train educators. There are also major costs involved with constant COVID testing of students and disinfecting of classrooms, offices, and other facilities. And, colleges must continue to pay existing vendor contracts, maintain facilities, and compensate their own staff. The situation has created an existential crisis among smaller colleges, who lack the endowments and funding of larger institutions. For many, it’s a question of survival.

A Mixed Response to Managing College Costs

Given this predicament and the widely varying circumstances faced by different institutions, it’s no surprise that their responses vary widely. A handful of universities have announced substantial price cuts. Some have cut fees. But most have kept prices flat, and a few have even increased them. While many offer refunds of fees and room and board, the reimbursement policies vary from school to school — and nearly all have drawn the line at tuition. Here’s a sampling of actions taken — or not — by different schools:

  • Full or partial refunds for room and board costs
  • Reduced tuition and fees
  • Discounts in the form of scholarships or loans
  • Renegotiated financial aid packages
  • Frozen tuition at previous year’s level
  • Imposition of “COVID fees” to cover added costs
  • Increased tuition to cover added expenses

Which of these actions a given school takes depends largely on its financial health and reputation. Smaller, private colleges with more at stake are generally offering more in the form of relief. Larger, well-endowed institutions, such as the Ivy League colleges and large state schools, trend toward the status quo. But there are many exceptions, and each institution has its own approach.

What Can You Do?

If you are a student or parent seeking compensation or relief, your options are limited, especially for the current semester. At nearly all institutions, tuition reimbursement is almost nonexistent after several weeks, no matter what the circumstances. Some schools are now offering tuition insurance, but coverage typically applies only when a student withdraws for medical reasons. To find out what relief may be available at your school, contact the registrar.

Alternatively, you can join the thousands of students and parents who have signed petitions or filed lawsuits demanding tuition cuts, housing reimbursements, and more. Check online to see if any such actions may be already in the works at your school.

In the end, like so many other issues arising from the pandemic, the current predicament facing students and schools is likely to be with us until a COVID-19 vaccine is in place. Even then, skyrocketing costs and mounting student debt pose longer-term issues. Any resolution will take time and likely have far-reaching implications for the costs and nature of a college education.


1The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2019.

2The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2019.


This material was prepared by LPL Financial. This material is for general information only and is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. There is no assurance that they views or strategies discussed are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes. Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal. Any economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted and are subject to change. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

financial plan

Getting Ready for 2019


Getting Your Financial Plan Ready for 2019

Last month I wrote about how the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act could affect your year-end planning. Now I’d like to look at year-end planning from a broader perspective. This list should help you get your financial plan ready for the new year:


  • It All Starts With Saving…

    Whether you use Mint, a spending tool from your financial advisor, or a year-end report from your bank or credit card issuer, it’s important to track your spending habits. Having a handle on how you spent your money in 2018 will give you an idea of how you can save more in 2019. Sticking to a budget isn’t easy, so start by analyzing reoccurring expenses to find opportunities to save more. It could be cutting the cord (I switched to DirectTV Now this year!), switching to a family cell phone plan or reaching out to your insurance agent to review your policies.


  • Instead of Resolutions, Have a Plan…

    This is a good time to look at where you were last year at this time and see if you stuck with your financial plan. If anything has changed in 2018 that affects your long-term goals, this is the time to address them in your plan.


  • Make Sure You Have a Liquidity Plan…

    The rule of thumb is to make sure you keep three to six months of expenses in cash to act as an emergency fund. This may be too broad of an approach as everyone’s situation is different. If you take a lot of risk in your career you may want to hold more cash. A larger cash reserve could also apply to retirees that rely on their investments for most of their income.


  • Last Chance To Max Out Retirement Plan Contributions…

    The maximum 401(k) employee elective salary deferral for 2018 is $18,500. If you are age 50 or older, you can put in an additional $6,000 as a catch-up contribution. If you are a participant in a SIMPLE IRA plan, the maximum salary deferral is $12,500 and a $3,000 catch-up contribution can be made. The deadline for these contributions is December 31st. If you can put away more for 2018, contact your human resources department to see if more can be taken out of your last paycheck.


  • Make sure you take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your retirement accounts…

    According to the IRS, you must take your first required minimum distribution (RMD) for the year in which you turn age 70½ by April 1st of the following year. After that first year, the distributions must be made by December 31st. Remember, required minimum distributions also apply to inherited IRAs. You must start taking distributions by December 31st in the year following the death of the original owner.


  • Is a Roth Conversion Right For You…

    Any money that you convert to a Roth IRA is generally subject to income taxation in the year that you do it. But over the long term, the money will continue to grow tax-free. It also won’t be subject to required minimum distributions (RMD) in retirement. Traditional IRA account owners should consider the tax ramifications, age and income restrictions about executing a conversion from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Roth conversions must be done by December 31st. If you made any non-deductible contributions to a retirement plan or IRA in 2018, you may be able to convert those to a Roth without any additional tax consequences.


  • Review Your Investments and Harvest Tax Losses… 

    2018 has been a volatile year with many asset classes down year to date. You may be able to harvest some losses in your non-retirement investment accounts by offsetting them with realized gains. You can also realize up to $3,000 as a capital loss against your taxable income.


  • Making the deadline for a charitable gift… 

    Most charitable gifts must be postmarked or received by December 31st to qualify for a deduction. If you are retired and taking distributions from a retirement account, part of your RMD can be met by making a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD). A QCD doesn’t give you a charitable deduction, but it counts against satisfying your required minimum distribution for the year. Therefore, it is excluded from your taxable income. Like your RMD, the deadline for this distribution is December 31st.


  • Deducting 529 contributions… 

    Prior to investing in a 529 plan, investors should consider whether the investor’s or designated beneficiary’s home state offers any state tax or other state benefits such as financial aid, scholarship funds, and protection from creditors that are only available for investments in such state’s qualified tuition program. Withdrawals used for qualified expenses are federally tax free. Tax treatment at the state level may vary. Please consult with your tax advisor before investing. If you are in a home state’s plan that offers an income tax deduction on contributions, make sure you get your contribution in by December 31st.


  • Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?… 

    Has anything changed in 2018 that would be a reason to make modifications to your will, health care proxy, or power of attorney? This is also a good time to make sure you have the desired beneficiary(s) on all of your retirement accounts and insurance policies.


  • Making the Most of Spending Accounts…

    For 2018, if you are in a high-deductible health-insurance plan, you can fund a health savings account (HSA). Individuals can put away as much as $3,450 before taxes, while families, can put away $6,900. Those age 55 and older can contribute an additional $1,000. You have until April 15th to fund an HSA. If you funded a flexible spending account (FSA) through your employer in 2018, you may have to spend down your balance by the end of the year. Unlike an HSA, FSAs typically don’t allow you to carry over much of a balance into the following year.


  • Should You Bunch Medical Expenses by Year End?… 

    For 2018, the adjusted gross income (AGI) floor was lowered to 7.5% and will return to 10% in 2019. Any medical expenses above 7.5% of your AGI can be itemized for deductions. To claim the deduction, you must have itemized deductions that exceed your standard deduction (which is now $24,000 for a married couple). You may consider covering some medical expenses before the end of the year that you were going to hold off on, if it will raise your itemized deductions above your standard deduction. Also, 2019 will be a more difficult year to claim the deduction since the AGI floor returns to 10%.


As always is the case, these suggestions are only intended to be used as general information and are not intended to be tax advice. You should always consult a tax professional before making tax planning decisions and work with a trusted financial advisor to help you make the most of 2019.


All the best in the New Year.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member of FINRA/SIPC and investment advice offered through Stratos Wealth Partners Ltd., a Registered Investment Advisor. Stratos Wealth Partners, Ltd. and Lob Planning Group are separate entities from LPL Financial.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.


Stratos Wealth Partners, Lob Planning Group and LPL Financial do not provide legal and/or tax advice or services. Please consult your legal and/or tax advisor regarding your specific situation.


Should I use a 529 plan to save for college?

Facts about 529 Plans

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Getting the Facts Straight about 529 Plans

As many of us are sending our children back to school this month, I thought it would be a good time to clear up some misconceptions about 529 savings plans. A 529 savings plan is an investment program offered by each state. It offers tax-free growth on money invested to pay for education expenses. Here are some common questions that arise regarding these savings plans:

Do I lose the money if my child doesn’t go to college? You will always have access access to the money in your 529 account. If withdrawn for anything other than qualified expenses, you will be subject to income taxes and a 10% penalty on the earnings. The account is funded with after-tax money, so the principal isn’t subject to taxes or the penalty. For example, let’s say you withdraw $10,000 from your plan and $8,000 is principal and $2,000 is earnings. If the money is used for anything other than an educational expense, $2000 is subject to taxes and penalty. If your child doesn’t need the money for education, you can also change the beneficiary to another family member or fund your own continuing education. There are no tax consequences or penalty to change the beneficiary.

What qualifies for an educational expense? A qualifying expense doesn’t have to be tuition or fees to a 4-year college. It could also be used for community college, graduate school, eligible vocational or trade schools, or adult continuing education classes. Funds can also be used for off campus housing, books and supplies, and computers. This year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has expanded qualified expenses to distribute up to $10,000 per student to cover elementary or secondary schools.

What if my child gets a scholarship? You will be exempt from the 10% penalty on withdrawals up to the amount of the scholarship. You will still be subject to income taxes on the earnings. An exemption of the penalty is also applied if the beneficiary dies or becomes disabled, or decides to attend a U.S. Military Academy.

Do I have to use my home state’s plan or choose a school in my home state? You are not limited to using your home state’s plan, but there may be tax advantages. Some states offer a state tax deductions for 529 contributions if you make them to a plan in your home state. Your child can attend any eligible school regardless of where the plan is set up.

Will a 529 plan affect my child’s chances of receiving financial aid? Financial aid eligibility can vary depending on the institution, but it will have some impact. Since the account will be considered assets of the owner of the account and not the child, the impact will be small. An asset of a parent will reduce your eligibility by up to 5.64% of the value of the account. If the account were in the child’s name, it would be reduced by 20% of the value of the account. Also, the distributions will not be counted as income to your child for financial aid purposes.

With education expenses continuing to outpace inflation, a 529 plan can be a valuable tool to help cover the costs. A great resource for researching the different plans available is www.savingforcollege.com. If you are still unsure, reach out and I can help you determine the best way to save for your family’s education expenses.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual, nor intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax advisor.

 Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member of FINRA/SIPC and investment advice offered through Stratos Wealth Partners Ltd., a Registered Investment Advisor. Stratos Wealth Partners, Ltd. and Lob Planning Group are separate entities from LPL Financial.