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Getting financial aid for college is not really a mystery

Updated: 2013-12-18 11:12
By Qidong Zhang ( China Daily)

Alan is a software engineer working in Silicon Valley. With a household income of more than $300,000, he never dreamed he could get a $45,000 financial aid package for his son to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013 and only have to pay the $6,000 in taxes.

Alan is among many who seek financial aid advice from Michael Chen, a financial aid & tax planning expert, whose company provides professional financial aid and tax planning consulting service across the country.

Chen, president of Mastermind College FinAid and Tax Planning Group, has helped more than 10,000 families with financial aid applications since 2003 with a substantial success rate.

To meet the demand, Chen launched his first free online-seminar (webinar) recently and has seen more and more Chinese families turn to his advice on college financial aid and tax planning.

"My newly launched webinars save me from traveling all around to give seminars, which sometimes can be challenging," said Chen, who used to travel around the country to give lectures and seminars.

In 2007, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) was passed into law to help address college affordability and help the US regain its standing as a world leader in higher education.

According to Chen, more than$170 billion is available for college financial aid from Federal, state government sources, and college to qualified families. However, only those who know how to follow the rules of the CCRAA, the Department of Education, states and colleges, and present the family income and assets properly can hope to obtain the best financial aid and tax benefits.

A veteran of the financial services field, Chen said financial aid is awarded in different forms such as grants or scholarships, Federal work/study programs, government-subsidized loans, and tax benefits. Different from the merit-based scholarships, the financial aid is for families based on family net income and net assets.

"You may be surprised at how many parents are not aware of their eligibility for financial aid, nor do they know how to benefit from it," said Chen. "Many of my clients are white-collar engineers, scientists, medical doctors and business owners, with a family income of $200,000 plus, some have rental properties. However, they are not familiar with the regulations of the Department of Education, and the State Board of Education until they attend my webinar or seminar."

Chen said his typical clients are under the mistaken impression or assumption that they have to either spend their savings, sell their stocks, cash out home equity, or sell rental properties in order to pay for their child's college education.

"Some very talented kids give up Ivy League opportunities because their parents think they can't afford it," said Chen.

Chen said families typically make one of three mistakes when it comes to financial aid application:

"The first is that parents wrongly believe only low income families are qualified for financial aid," he said. "The second is that parents give up applying after being told their income or assets are too high to be qualified by their friends, colleagues and even professionals such as their CPA and attorney.

"The third is that parents file for the FAFSA and CSS forms without a clear understanding of the financial aid rules," he said.

Another important fact, according to Chen, is that parents underestimate the level of difficulty on the financial aid application.

"Normally high schools counselors tell parents to fill out FAFSA and CSS forms to 'give it a try' during an hour and half High School Financial Aid Night. What they don't understand is that without careful planning, they will not be able to get what they should, since applying for financial aid is quite sophisticated, and parents need professional guidance from experts to plan well ahead," said Chen.

According to Chen, applying for financial aid is much more complicated than just filling the forms and entering data. Many high school counselors, accountants and lawyers also seek advice from financial aid experts.

"Every family needs to arrange its income and assets legally and strategically by early planning with the guidance of the financial aid expert according to the rules of the Department of Education. Only after that is done should a family file the FAFSA or CSS financial aid application," said Chen.

Born and raised in China, 1991 Chen came to the US and earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Minnesota. He established internet.com in 1999 and later decided to join the financial services field. Through a career as a MetLife financial planner, Chen had witnessed many middle class parents spending their life savings for their kids' education and leaving no money for their retirement. He decided to become a college financial aid expert.

"Just like if you want to play a game, you must know the rules first. For financial aid application, it's essential that families follow the rules to plan their income and assets accordingly to reduce their net asset and net income, especially those who have high W2 income, rental properties, savings, and stock options," said Chen.

For doing college financial aid planning, Chen categorizes families into four types:

1. Low income plus high assets: need to adjust their assets to reduce their net assets;

2. High income plus middle assets: need to do tax planning to reduce their modified adjusted gross income (MAGI);

3. High income plus high assets: need to adjust their assets and do tax planning to reduce their net assets and MAGI;

4. Low income plus low assets: No need to do planning, don't need expert help.

Cindy and John Yang, a family of two engineers who paid full tuition for two sons, found out after consulting with Chen that their family was actually qualified for financial aid of up to $100,000 per year and they only needed to pay the minimum tax.

"Having an annual income of $200,000 and a rental property, we have never thought we could be qualified for the financial aid until we met Michael," said the Yangs.

Timing or starting early is of extreme significance for college financial aid planning, according to Chen. How early? When your child starts high school.

Getting financial aid for college is not really a mystery

Michael Chen, president of Mastermind College FinAid and Tax Planning Group, has helped numerous familes access funding they never knew they were elligible for. Provided to China Daily

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