Obama’s impact of the Class of 2018 and beyond

October 27, 2015

A Chance to Boost Financial Aid for Today’s High-School Sophomores

Wall Street Journal Article

Strategic moves by Dec. 31 may help some families reduce the income to be reported on the Fafsa form for the freshman year of college

A recent executive order changes the timeline for financial planning for a child’s college education. Here, a high-school graduation in Virginia in May. PHOTO: SCOTT MASON/THE WINCHESTER STAR/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Attention, parents of high-school sophomores: There are financial steps you may want to take before year-end to help your child get more financial aid for the freshman year of college.

A recent executive order signed by President Barack Obama will change the rules for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid beginning with aid for the 2017-18 school year. Families will complete the form based on their “prior prior year” income instead of prior-year income as they do now.

That means that current high-school sophomores who graduate in 2018 will use 2016, not 2017, as the base year in reporting family and student income on their first Fafsa form. The government form is used in determining the amount of grants, loans and other forms of financial aid.

The upshot: If families were contemplating actions in 2016 that might boost their taxable income, they should consider accelerating those moves into 2015 instead. And they may want to look for other opportunities to shift 2016 income into this year and delay deductions—contrary to the standard tax-planning strategy of trying to delay income and accelerate deductions.

“You used to do this planning in a student’s junior year. Now you need to do it a year earlier,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert in Las Vegas.

For example, he says parents of high-school sophomores who are considering converting a traditional individual retirement account to a Roth IRA, a move that boosts taxable income, may want to do it before year-end.

Deborah Fox, founder of Fox College Funding LLC in San Diego, advised the business-owning mother of one high-school sophomore to wait until 2016 to establish and contribute to a simplified employee pension plan. She also recommended the woman delay deductible computer purchases until next year and speed up her company’s billing so she receives as much income as possible in 2015.

Ms. Fox advised the family against prepaying their January mortgage and property-tax bills in December as they had planned. And she told the father to see if he can receive his bonus by Dec. 31 instead of in early January.

Before year-end, affected families may want to lock in any capital gains on investments they were planning to sell next year. Children who have investments with embedded capital gains in their own names—such as in a custodial account—should also consider selling before year-end to recognize the gains if the investments will be used for college, says Michael Kitces, partner at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md.

Families should check with their accountants to see how accelerating income or delaying deductions will affect their taxes, Ms. Fox says.

As of now, the base-year change applies only to the Fafsa and not the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, the financial-aid form almost 300 private colleges use to award their own funds. The College Board, which manages the CSS form, says it is “committed to supporting institutions as they make the transition” to prior-prior-year data and is “working closely with our members and leaders at colleges and universities to determine next steps for the CSS/Financial Aid Profile.”

Grandparents will also want to be aware of the change to prior-prior-year numbers on the Fafsa, Mr. Kitces says. When the change kicks in, it will enable them to make financial gifts to college students, including distributions from grandparent-owned 529 college-savings plans, earlier in the college years without those dollars being counted as student income on the Fafsa.

As of the second semester of these students’ sophomore year in college, the prior prior year for their third and fourth years of college will already be over.

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