Personal Finance

Two Smart Ways to Fund College Tuition Using Real Estate Investments

Expertise: Personal Finance, Landlording & Rental Properties, Personal Development, Real Estate Investing Basics
38 Articles Written

When acquired in the context of a thoughtful strategy, real estate investments can be a great vehicle to help you achieve all your financial goals. A well-constructed real estate portfolio can provide passive income to fund and outlast your retirement. That same portfolio can help you grow your net worth to maximize your investments and allow you to leave a legacy for your loved ones. Also, it can help you reduce risk across all your investments by diversifying your holdings with assets that serve as inflation and interest rate risk hedges. Finally, real estate investments can provide an alternative way to fund college tuition for your kids or grandkids.

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The first thing you’ll want to do before you dive into the strategy is to define the problem you are trying to solve. Some focusing questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • How many years of college education are you funding? Are we talking about a 4-year bachelor’s eegree or do you want to also fund graduate studies?
  • Are you looking to fund college education in a state university or a private college? The tuition cost can vary dramatically depending on which option.
  • Do you want to fund 100 percent of the tuition cost or some other percentage? Some parents feel that their children will appreciate and make the most out of their degree when they have to cover a portion of the expenses themselves.
  • Are you looking to fund just tuition and books or room and board as well? Again, some parents don’t want their children to need to work when attending college, while others feel that working while going to school can keep college “distractions” at bay.

Based on the answers to those questions, you can start to quantify both the total cost of college tuition you’re trying to fund and the timing of when each payment is due.

Before we go deep into the details of each strategy, let’s agree on a set of facts. Let’s say you’re in your late 30s and you’re trying to fund four years of tuition, books, room, and board at University of Texas (public, in-state college) for your two-year-old daughter using real estate investments. Using a free online tool like Vanguard College Cost Projector, we can estimate the future cost to be $198,800. One thing to keep in mind here is that the rate of inflation for college tuition is much higher than normal inflation. I used the 10-year historical rate of 5% for the purposes of this calculation.

Via: Vanguard College Cost Projector

Now, I want to show you two real estate investment strategies you can use to fund college tuition without exposing yourself further to stock market risk and fluctuations: The “Earmarked Asset” and the “Cash Flow as You Go” strategies.

The Earmarked Asset Strategy

In this strategy, you acquire a property that you earmark for the purpose of funding college tuition. This property is part of your real estate portfolio, but it doesn’t contribute to any other financial goals except funding college tuition. The next step is to use its positive cash flow and other savings from your disposable income to pay off the mortgage on the property by the time your daughter is ready to start college. Last but not least, you liquidate the property during the year your daughter starts attending college, and you fund all four years of college at that time.

Let’s walk through the numbers. Your daughter will attend college in 16 years at which point you will need $198,800 to cover four years of tuition, books, room, and board. If we’re going to purchase, pay off, and liquidate an asset to cover those costs, we need to make sure that you net $198,800 after-tax from the sale of the property. Let’s assume that you will owe 20% to capital gains and depreciation recapture taxes and 7% to sales and closing costs. In order to net $198,800 after-tax, the sales price of the property 16 years from now should be $252,500. If we assume a conservative average property appreciation rate of 2% (less than the rate of inflation), that would mean that we need to acquire a property today for about $184,000.

Related: College Tuition “Hacks”: 9 Alternative Ways to Pay for Schooling

Now that you know our target purchase price, you can acquire the property with 25% down a 30-year mortgage for the rest at 5% fixed. (Note: You could get a 15-year mortgage here instead, but it would force you into a higher payment and would not provide enough flexibility in the event any detours that we will discuss later happen along the way.) So your initial investment into this “earmarked asset tuition plan” is about $48,000.

Next, in order to get this property free and clear in 16 years, you will need to make $407 in extra principal-only payments in addition to your regular mortgage of $987. Let’s assume that the property conservatively produces $170 per month in positive cash flow. That means you would need to contribute $237 per month from your income savings to get this property free and clear by the time your daughter is ready to attend college. So essentially, a latte and a half a day to fund four years of college for your child—not a bad bargain!

Now let’s look at the 10,000 ft view. When you acquired the property, you invested $48,000 into the deal, and then you contributed $237 per month for 16 years for another $45,500. So, without going into complicated time-value-of-money calculations, you invested $93,504 and managed to fund $198,000 worth of tuition cost in 16 years without exposing yourself to the bipolar whims and sequence of return risk of the stock market. Also, let’s not forget that our assumptions on property appreciation rates were very conservative. If the property you acquired was located in Houston, where the historical appreciation rate is 3.23%, the value of your property 16 years later would be closer to $300,000, which means you could fund a tuition and a half!

5 Reasons to Invest in Near-College Real Estate

The Cash Flow as You Go Strategy

If you don’t want to earmark a property for the purposes of funding college education and you plan on building a substantial real estate portfolio, you could use the alternative Cash Flow as You Go strategy. With the Earmarked Asset Strategy, you fund college tuition from your balance sheet. With this strategy, you look at tuition cost as an annual expense in the year it’s due, and you fund it from your income statement.

For instance, the cost of tuition for Year 1 is $46,124, Year 2 is $48,430, Year 3 is $50,851, and Year 4 is $53,394. So, instead of purchasing an asset that when liquidated will produce enough proceeds to cover the entire cost of tuition, we would build a portfolio that would produce the required income to cover the tuition expense in each of the four college years. The principal difference is that after you fund college, you still own the assets and can use them to fund other important financial goals.

Related: Parents: Stop Contributing to 529 Plans for College. Use This Superior Method Instead.

The average cost per year of $49,500 is the starting point to determine the value and makeup of your portfolio. We need to build a portfolio that in 16 years’ time could produce $49,500 in income to cover the college tuition expense. Assuming a free and clear yield of 6% and a conservative property appreciation rate of 2%, we would need to first acquire a portfolio worth $600k now and get it free and clear in 16 years so that on the first year of college is worth approximately $825,000. Again, assuming a 25% down payment on those purchases, we’re looking at around $150k in capital required to build this portfolio and deploy this strategy.

Obviously, in this scenario, we’re not just solving college tuition but the whole financial picture puzzle. If we can build a real estate portfolio that can fund $50k a year for tuition for four years, we are also creating $50k in passive real estate income toward your retirement income goals.

In Conclusion

Thoughtful real estate investments can be an excellent vehicle to fund college tuition for your children without the sequence of returns risk and volatility of the stock market. First, you quantify the tuition funding goal and get very specific about what it will take to accomplish it. Once you’ve done that, you can earmark a specific property to fund tuition, pay it off in the time available until college starts, and liquidate it that year. Or you can look at tuition as an annual expense and build a portfolio that will create sufficient income to cover it as it arises.

Will you be using either of these strategies to fund your kids’ schooling?

Comment below!

Erion Shehaj helps successful professionals achieve financial independence using the Blueprint Real Estate Investing™ strategy. By comb...
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    Darin L. Investor from Pocatello, Idaho
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Great article Erion, with a nice breakdown of numbers. I am planning a “middle of the road” option. I am planning to cash-out refi rather than sell when the boys are in college. That will save significantly on taxes/fees from the sale. Your thoughts on a cash-out refi versus sale or straight cash-flow? It adds enough flexibility because if I plan correctly and things go well, I can refi only what is needed at whatever college is chosen. Additionally, I expect to only pay for two years of undergrad because of dual-credit in high-school plus GI-bill transfer; paying for graduate degrees seems more and more likely these days though with degree inflation as it is (ie masters in 2018 is equivalent to bachelors in 1990).
    Erion Shehaj Real Estate Broker from Houston, TX
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Darin A cash out refinance is an excellent middle of the way option to avoid capital gains and depreciation recapture taxes and to keep the asset in the portfolio. It would also keep you from having to sell an asset in unfavorable market conditions. Great suggestion!
    David Sees Investor from Broomfield, Colorado
    Replied over 1 year ago
    This is a great article and I can say I have been following your second option to fund the college education of my 3 kids and to use the same investments to fund an early retirement. I embarked on the journey starting in 2012 and now have 11 doors of rentals to provide a lasting cash flow. Glad to see others are looking at the same logic to fund college and beyond… This is far more lasting than plugging $400K into college investment programs which then have an account value of $0 after children attend college. This also provides flexibility if kids do not attend college or there is money left over in the account due to scholarships… My initial goal was to see how I could pay for college tuition and still have money to provide a lasting retirement income to eventually supplement Social Security (if it still exists…). I would also add that I have been very active creating a self managed IRA to purchase real estate/rentals using 401k funds from 3 of my past employers. I plan to have a total of 3 IRA properties to generate IRA income/cash flow from the properties to also aid in paying for college tuition. It is allowable to use IRA funds to pay education expenses but the withdraws will be taxed (and not penalized). Just another creative way to put the IRA to use.
    Erion Shehaj Real Estate Broker from Houston, TX
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Thanks David – for the kind words and for sharing your personal experience. I have to say, I’m biased toward the second option myself because it solves more than just the education funding problem. Also, using IRAs is a good option to make sure your returns grow and compound tax-deferred.
    Lewis Christman Financial Advisor from Macungie, PA
    Replied over 1 year ago
    I prefer the cashflow method myself and think a big caveat in the purchase method there is no mention of tenant turnover and vacancy which I see as a rather large danger to plan for. To make the math work you need to make a full rental payment to keep the numbers on track. I also fear inflation adjustments to the value of the home is dangerous. Who knows what type of market you are selling into and will the rents collected warrant that increase in value? Would you look at buying the 250K investment property just in case the appreciation is not there? Also this is not black and white as we know. A property purchased to sell may turn into a full time permanent rental and a cashflow property might be sold.
    Erion Shehaj Real Estate Broker from Houston, TX
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Hey Lewis Great points! I purposely went light on detailed income and expense numbers on this post because I wanted to keep the focus on education funding. The positive cash flow I recommended investors use to pay off the mortgage is after tenant turnover, vacancy and CAPEX have been accounted for. The way I see it, those are operating expenses just like taxes and insurance – not optional. The property appreciation figures are conservative based on historical precedent. For instance, in my market in Houston, you can take ANY 10 year period in the last 30 years and the appreciation rate would be well over 2%. The timing doesn’t matter either. You can end with the 2008 recession and it would still be well over that figure. So I was being conservative in using that figure for my market. Obviously, if the data was different for a different market we would have to revise that figure or leave it out completely.
    Susan Maneck Investor from Jackson, Mississippi
    Replied over 1 year ago
    There is another way to help fund your child’s education and that’s with a kiddie condo. You only want to do this is you have a money savy young person, however. You both co-sign on a kiddie-condo loan through FHA and buy a property close to their university. Doesn’t have to be a condo, any 1-4 unit will do. They rent out the other rooms in the condo and that makes the payment with hopefully money left over.
    Erion Shehaj Real Estate Broker from Houston, TX
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Susan – that’s a brilliant idea, too. Yes, it will require a responsible and savvy young person but I think it can be an important teachable moment. They will learn how to think as an investor, take care of a property and manage tenants early. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation.