Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 2.
The College Board is out with its benchmark college costs guide - the 2016 Trends In Higher Education.
This year - like recent years - the guide shows yet another jump in college tuition and fees, with U.S. students and families seeing up to a 3.6% hike in college costs in 2016. Worse, "The continuing increase in average published tuition and fees at colleges and universities outpaces the growth in financial aid, family incomes, and the average prices of other goods and services," the College Board reports.
Collegians attending in-state public four-year colleges face annual cost averages of $9,650 in 2016-17. "Additionally, average published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year institutions increased 3.6% before adjusting for inflation, rising from $32,330 in 2015-16 to $33,480 in 2016-17," the board states.
So what's a cash-strapped family to do when faced with rising collegiate costs?
If you're lucky, you can do what Lou Altman did.
Altman, founder of GlobaFone, a systems communication firm located in Portsmouth, N.H. says he chose a different route in funding his kids' college education. "I gifted them shares of my company stock held within a trust," he says. "Granted, this is only available to people who own a business. But when I founded GlobaFone my kids were little, the stock had a near-zero valuation so gifting 2% was easy to do. Setting up the trusts cost a couple thousand dollars."
Altman says the pros and cons of his strategy are certainly debatable, and the trusts do pay capital gains on the shares. "However, I am keeping my ability to pay for their schooling squarely within my control: if my company does well, school is covered. If not, it's not," he adds. "This is a very strong incentive for success."
If you're not a business owner, experts contacted by TheStreet say your best bet is working with a financial advisor to build a college savings portfolio that stays ahead of annual collegiate cost increases.
Such a portfolio requires diligence and diversity, money managers say.
"The biggest mistake parents make is relying on investment returns from their portfolio to fund their child's education," says Kevin Driscoll, vice president of advisory services at Navy Federal Financial Group. Parents looking to build an investment portfolio for their child's education will have a higher degree of success with regular and consistent contributions, Driscoll notes. "To limit risk, those contributions should go towards a diversified portfolio," he states. "A diversified portfolio combined with regular contributions should lead to success even if the market fluctuates."
Seeking balance is a college portfolio is deemed as a high priority by money managers, mostly to thwart any negative impact from stock market volatility.
"Historically, the stock market sees 5% declines about three-times per year, 10% declines once per year, 15% declines about every other year, and 20-plus% declines every three or four years," says Matt Hylland, an investment advisor at Hylland Capital Management, in Virginia Beach, Va.
"Parents who are too aggressive are open to potentially taking a large hit to their savings when they need it most," Hylland adds. "Although allocations will vary for everyone based on their financial condition, as a general rule I'd be very cautious having a majority of college savings in stocks if you plan on needing the money within five years."
For college savers who don't want to be "hands on" in managing their investments, a target date fund should serve as an excellent low-cost, passive investment for college savings, Hylland adds. "Asset allocations in target date funds will be automatically moved to less volatile investments as the day approaches for you to begin cashing out," he explains.
Plus, there are other options available besides stocks, Hylland notes. "U.S. government savings bonds offer tremendous benefits for parents who are planning ahead," he says. "Returns from both 'EE' and "I" series savings bonds are tax-free if used for qualified education expenses. EE series bonds also have an additional bonus - they are guaranteed to double in value in 20 years."
"That is equivalent to a 3.52% annual return, nearly 100 basis points higher than the 30-year U.S. Treasury bond today," he states.
Just don't sell them too quickly. "Using EE series bonds requires planning," Hylland says. "If they're sold before being held for 20 years, you'll get a much lower return. But for parents who can afford to think ahead and save money today, you can not find a guaranteed return near 4% anywhere else today besides EE savings bonds."
Maybe the best move to make is to start investing for college early, even the month your college-bound baby is born.
"If you start early enough, go ahead and be aggressive with growth stocks driving the bulk of your returns, but progressively pull that back to 20% to 30% growth by the time your kids are in high school," advises Daniel Lawton, a financial planner with Grassland Solutions, in Madison, Wis. "In your last year before college, set aside what you will need for the next year's expenses, 12 months in advance in a very conservative certificate of deposit or money market fund so you don't suffer last minute losses."
With college costs climbing, now is the time to sit down with your financial advisor and begin constructing your family's bullet-proof education savings portfolio. If you don't, you could be staring down the barrel of huge student loan debt - a scenario no parents want to bestow upon their young collegian.