How to Set Up a College Fund

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · September 06, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How to Set Up a College Fund

No doubt you’re aware that sending a child to college is expensive. The current cost of attending a private college is $55,840 per year for students who live on campus ($38,768 of it on tuition and fees), according to the Education Data Initiative. Public universities are generally more affordable, with tuition and fees averaging $9,678 per year (for in-state students) and $27,091(for out-of-state students). But those numbers don’t include room and board.

As a parent, sometimes just thinking about the cost of college for your kid (or kids) can feel bleak. Fortunately, there are a number of college fund options that can make it easier to save a sizable sum by the time your child goes to college. Generally, the earlier you start, the better, but it’s never too late to get going. Read on for a closer look at how to set up the best type of college fund for your child.

How to Set up College Funds: Getting Started

When it comes to setting up a college fund, there are a few savings plans and investment accounts that are specifically designed to help people save for their child’s education expenses. Here’s a closer look at your options.

💡 Quick Tip: SoFi offers low fixed- or variable-interest rates. So you can get a private student loan that fits your budget.

529 Plans

These accounts, also known as qualified tuition plans, are named after an IRS code section and give parents the option to save for college in the name of a child while providing certain tax advantages.

There are two kinds of 529 Plans: prepaid tuition plans and education savings plans.

Prepaid tuition plans let you buy future credits or course units at participating colleges or universities. These credits are used to help cover the cost of tuition for the beneficiary. Most prepaid tuition plans have residency requirements and are often sponsored by state governments.

Education savings plans are investment accounts that can be used to save for the beneficiary’s qualified education expenses. The funds can be used to pay for higher education or private elementary or high schools. A 529 plan allows your savings to grow tax-free, and some states even offer a tax deduction on your contributions.

If your child decides not to go to school, it’s possible to roll the account over into the name of another family member. If the funds aren’t used for education-related expenses, there may be taxes and penalties.

Generous family and friends can also contribute to a child’s college savings plan. They may choose to make deposits to an existing 529 account or set up one themselves, naming a beneficiary of their choosing.

Recommended: Benefits of Using a 529 College Savings Plan

Coverdell Education Savings Account

This account has more limitations but may work well for some families. Individuals who have a modified gross adjusted income (MAGI) that falls below $110,000 ($220,000 if married and filing jointly) may be eligible to save for college using a Coverdell Education Savings account.

You can contribute up to $2,000 for a single beneficiary in a given year. Funds saved in this type of account can be used for eligible elementary and secondary expenses, in addition to higher education expenses. Contributions are made after taxes and must be made in cash. Typically, the funds can be withdrawn without a fee if they are used for qualified education expenses.

Recommended: Paying for College: A Parent’s Guide

The Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) Account

This custodial account allows your child to own stocks and mutual funds. The custodian still controls the account until the minor reaches legal age. Note that it’s not tax-free.

Annual contributions that exceed $17,000 ($34,000 for a married couple) may be subject to a gift tax. It’s possible that a UGMA may reduce the amount of financial aid eligibility. Additionally, there is no penalty should the funds not be used for education expenses.

Roth IRA

Although generally used for retirement savings, a Roth IRA can be used to pay for the cost of college. Contributions to Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars but earnings grow tax-free.

Generally, to make fee-free withdrawals from an IRA, the account holder needs to be at least 59 ½ years old. However, If you made the first contribution to your Roth IRA at least five years before, you can also withdraw the growth for qualified education expenses, including tuition, books, and supplies.

Keep in mind that, while there may not be an early withdrawal fee, the earnings withdrawn may still be subject to income tax.

Easing the Financial Burden

Even after years of diligent saving, paying the full cost of college tuition isn’t affordable for some families. Fortunately, there are a few options to fill the gaps and help parents and students pay for college.

Students getting ready to start college or those who are already enrolled could look into options like scholarships, grants, or private student loans.

You’ll want to be sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the first step in qualifying for federal aid, including scholarships and grants, work-study, and federal student loans.


These can be a powerful asset when paying for college since it’s money that doesn’t have to be paid back.

Scholarships are typically merit-based and can be offered through a variety of different types of organizations like local nonprofits, corporations, or even sometimes directly from universities. There are a number of searchable databases that compile different scholarship opportunities.


In addition to scholarships, there are thousands of grants available to students. These grants are issued by the federal government, the Pell program, and individual states. Some are need-based, while others are merit-based. To find out if you qualify and to become eligible for grants, you need to fill out the FAFSA.

Work-Study Programs

The federal work-study program provides part-time jobs for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students with financial needs. These jobs allow them to earn money to help pay education expenses. To be eligible for work-study, you must fill out the FAFSA.

Student Loans

There are two types of student loans: federal and private. Federal student loans are awarded as a part of a student’s financial aid package and can either be subsidized or unsubsidized.

Subsidized Federal Student Loans

Subsidized student loans are awarded to eligible undergraduate students based on need. The federal government covers the interest on these loans during the time the student is in school at least half-time, during the six-month grace period after leaving school, and during deferment periods.

Unsubsidized Federal Student Loans

Unsubsidized student loans are not awarded based on financial need, and are available to both undergraduate and graduate students. Interest on these loans begins to accrue as soon as the loan is disbursed. If the borrower chooses not to pay the interest while in school, during grace periods, or while in deferment, the interest will be added to the loan principal.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Typically, for someone to get a private student loan, lenders will evaluate the borrower’s credit history, which isn’t the case with most federal student loans. This is why some borrowers rely on a cosigner to secure private student loans.

Many private student loans require payments while the student is still in school, but some do allow you to defer payments until after you graduate (interest will continue to accrue, however.)

An Alternative Way to Finance College

Some parents might consider taking out a parent-student loan to help their kids pay for college. The federal government makes Direct PLUS loans available to parents and graduate students.

Parent PLUS Loan interest rates and fees are set by the Education Department and are higher than other types of federal student loans. The interest rate for the 2023-2024 school year on a Direct PLUS loan is 8.05% and is fixed for the life of the loan.

Some private lenders also offer parent student loans. Private parent loan interest rates can be fixed or variable and are based on the borrower’s creditworthiness. Private loans may offer lower rates than federal PLUS Loans for well-qualified applicants.

💡 Quick Tip: It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.

The Takeaway

There’s no time like now to start saving for college. There are a variety of accounts that are specifically designed to help families save for their children’s future college education, including 529 savings plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.

Beyond savings, students and their families rely on things like scholarships, grants, and student loans to help cover the cost of higher education.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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