First off, we should clarify what you mean by "529 - money in the kid's name". Usually, this means that the parent sets up a 529 account in their name, but puts down their kid as the beneficiary. Therefore the parent is the custodian, or the "owner" of the account. However, if the student is both the beneficiary and the custodian of their own account, that is treated differently when it comes to calculating student aid.
Let's assume you are the custodian, and your kid is the beneficiary. Then, say you have a 529 or IRA account with $100,000 for college and plan to withdraw $25,000 a year. (Note, this also assumes that you are allowed to make withdrawals from the retirement account without penalties.)
For the 529 account, only 5.64% of the balance is used to calculate student financial aid. When you withdraw from the account, it is not reported (since it was already counted as an asset). Therefore, for a $100,000 account balance in year one of college, only $5,640 is counted as an asset, and the withdrawal is "free". For year two, only $4,230 is counted as an asset.
For a parent owned retirement account (IRA or otherwise), it is not counted as an asset, but any withdrawals used to fund education are calculated at 50% for the next year's FAFSA. So if you withdraw $25,000 to cover college in year one, $12,500 would be counted as an asset for year two.
If you use one or the other for all four years, the 529 is definitely the way to go. The amount used to calculate financial aid is much less than the retirement account. The amount would also be much less than the tax-free gains you would see from the investments inside the account.
But, you could also use the 529 account for the first three years, then the retirement account to pay for year four. That way the IRA withdrawal wouldn't matter since the child has already graduated. However, you as a parent may pay more taxes due to having a large lump-sum withdrawal from the retirement account (assuming it is a traditional).
What if my kid gets a scholarship?
In the cases where the student receives a grant/scholarship and you have a 529, you have two choices:
- Keep the money in the account and later change the beneficiary to a different child. Therefore, you have to contribute less towards kid #2's education.
- Withdraw an amount equal to the award from the 529. This avoids the 10% tax penalty for unqualified withdrawals, but you would still pay income tax on any investment gains (as well as any contributions that were not taxed by your state).