Working in college finance for the past 17 years, I have heard just about every rumor out there in terms of how to get a deal on your degree.
MBA candidates, in particular, tend to have a mind for finance and are acutely aware of making the most of their investment. In service of maximizing your business school funding, I’ve taken on five of the most common rumors I hear about financing the MBA. Find out what’s true, what’s false and what you can really do to get the most bang for your MBA buck.
Rumor #1: “Increase your retirement contributions to get more financial aid.”
Many people assume that financial aid eligibility is based upon your Adjusted Gross Income. It follows that diverting a greater portion of your income to your 401k, and thereby decreasing your AGI, would be an effective strategy for increasing aid eligibility. Unfortunately, the financial aid applications ask what you contributed to your retirement accounts in the base year they’re looking at (generally two years prior to the year in which you’re applying for aid), and add that amount to your AGI to get at your total income for the year. It is that total income, including retirement contributions, which determines aid eligibility. A more effective strategy for maximizing aid eligibility is avoiding liquidating income-producing assets in a base year—sell off stocks either before or after your financial aid base years in order to avoid artificially inflating your income.
Rumor #2: “Put all your savings in your house, your retirement accounts, or an insurance policy to hide it from the financial aid formula.”
It is true that the home equity, retirement accounts and insurance policies are all assets which are invisible to the federal financial aid formula known as Federal Methodology, so this strategy may work for some MBA students. Be aware, however, that many of the schools that are most generous with financial aid use a separate formula called Institutional Methodology to determine institutional grant eligibility, and a program’s Institutional Methodology may consider some of these assets to be available to help pay for business school. In addition, you have certainly lost liquidity by stashing your savings away in these types of assets, making it harder to actually pay for your MBA. A better strategy may be to utilize a 529 savings plan to hold your b-school savings. 529s are visible to the financial aid formula, but their funds also readily available to you and get you a nice tax break.
Rumor #3: “List your child as the beneficiary of your 529, so it won’t be taken into account for your MBA program.”
Sorry, this one just doesn’t work. MBA students are expected to report any 529s owned by themselves or their spouses, regardless of who the beneficiary of the account is—yourself, your child, or your third cousin twice removed. If you want to be able to use this money for your MBA program, list yourself as the beneficiary, and if you have leftover funding, you can always change the beneficiary to your child later to spend on their college.
Rumor #4: “Doing a part-time MBA program will be less expensive than attending full-time.”
For many students, a part-time MBA is the ideal option. It allows you to keep working and bringing in income, and, if your employer provides tuition reimbursement, also allows you to maximize this employer assistance. Those without such assistance should keep in mind, however, that stretching out your program may cost you more in the long run. Tuition tends to rise each year, so the same number of credits completed over four or five years will likely cost more than completing said credits in one or two. Also, note that attending part-time means postponing the career advancement and salary bump that attainment of an MBA often brings.
Rumor #5: “You can deduct the cost of your MBA on your tax return.”
While this rumor may have been true in the past, it is no longer. Some former MBA students were able to deduct the cost of their program as a “Work-Related Education Expense” on the Schedule A of their tax return. This Business Deduction for Work-Related Education Expenses, along with other miscellaneous itemized deductions, was eliminated by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017. Many MBA students will still be able to take a Lifetime Learning Tax Credit for up to $2,000, and those financing business school with student loans may still be able to take advantage of an annual Student Loan Interest Deduction, but the more expansive Work-Related Education Deduction is no more.
As you can see, business school financing advice is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Before making financial decisions based on such advice, consider the source and their expertise. Every school, every student, and every financial situation is different, so what worked for your neighbor, co-worker or classmate may not necessarily work for you. Be sure to seek true expert advice, from—depending on the subject—an admissions or financial aid professional, a financial planner or a tax accountant, before making moves that could have far-reaching implications for your education and your financial future.
By Shannon Vasconcelos, Director of College Finance at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of educational advisory services to organizations and families. At College Coach, Ms. Vasconcelos delivers workshops and provides individual counseling on the college finance process to employees at over 100 companies nationwide. She helps parents and students understand the processes of saving for college, paying for college, and education loan repayment, and maximize the tax break, financial aid, and scholarship resources available to them in a family-focused and ethical way.