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Can a Roth IRA be used for college?

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There are several reasons parents choose to tap into a Roth IRA to cover college tuition. For starters, Roth IRA funds can be invested in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs and plenty of other options, so the money has the potential to grow and compound over time. Contributions can be withdrawn at any time without a penalty, and even earnings may be withdrawn without penalty if they’re used for education-related expenses. However, there are still some downsides and alternatives to consider.

Can a Roth IRA be used for college tuition?

While they’re not specifically designed for college savings, Roth IRAs can be used to pay for a college education. Roth IRA accounts are funded with after-tax dollars and grow tax-free, and money can be withdrawn for educational purposes without a penalty — though you’ll still have to pay income taxes.

With that said, there are contribution limits for this type of account. In 2022, those who meet income requirements to contribute to a Roth IRA can contribute up to $6,000 across a Roth and a traditional IRA. The exception is individuals who are age 50 or older, who can contribute an additional $1,000 per year in what is known as a “catch-up contribution.”

Roth IRA withdrawal rules

Roth IRA withdrawal rules are considerably different from rules that apply to other retirement accounts. Since Roth IRA accounts are funded with after-tax dollars, account owners can withdraw their contributions (but not their earnings) before the standard retirement age of 59 ½ without paying any taxes or penalties.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) typically charges a 10 percent penalty on distributions that include earnings before retirement age. However, it provides several important exceptions for Roth IRAs, including distributions to pay college tuition. Parents who withdraw earnings for college costs will have to pay income taxes on the amount but not an added fee.

How a Roth IRA could affect financial aid

While distributions taken from a Roth IRA account are tax-free, distributions are counted as untaxed income on the following year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In other words, using a Roth IRA for college can reduce eligibility for need-based aid. However, the impact depends on the amount of money withdrawn and which year of school the distribution is made.

Pros and cons of using a Roth IRA to pay for college

If you’re on the fence about using Roth IRA funds to pay for college, think about the advantages and disadvantages that could apply to your situation.

Pros

  • Using a Roth IRA for college can reduce reliance on student loans. Parents who want to help their children avoid student loan debt can use Roth IRA funds to lessen their burden.
  • Roth IRAs can be invested for long-term growth. Money invested in a Roth IRA can be invested in stocks, bonds, ETFs, index funds and more, giving you plenty of options to customize your investment.
  • You get tax-free growth. Since Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars, the money can grow tax-free over time.
  • There is no penalty for education-related withdrawals. As long as the funds are used for education-related expenses, you won’t be penalized for withdrawing money from a Roth IRA.

Cons

  • Using a Roth IRA cuts into retirement savings. If you use too much of your Roth IRA funds to cover higher education expenses, you may fall behind on retirement goals.
  • Roth IRA accounts can lose money. While investing with a Roth IRA can help you grow your portfolio over time, stocks, bonds and other investments can also lose money. This means that you could have less money for college than you started with, depending on your timeline.
  • Financial aid could be impacted. Distributions from a Roth IRA will count as income on the FAFSA, which may reduce your child’s financial aid.
  • You’ll be subject to income and contribution limits. Unlike with other savings vehicles, you won’t be able to contribute to a Roth IRA if you exceed the income threshold. You can also contribute only $6,000 or $7,000 a year, depending on your age.

Roth IRA vs. 529 plan

Before using a Roth IRA plan for a college education, you may also want to consider a 529 college savings plan. A 529 plan is a type of investment account specifically designed for a college education, which grows your contributions on a tax-deferred basis. There are some significant advantages that come with saving for college in a 529 plan over a Roth IRA, although some of the benefits depend on your situation.

For example, some states offer tax benefits to those who contribute to a 529 savings plan. In the state of Indiana, for example, individuals can score a 20 percent tax credit on up to $5,000 in 529 plan contributions each year. Many other states offer tax deductions for 529 plan contributions.

One of the main benefits of a 529 plan is that the contribution caps are much higher than those of a Roth IRA. You can invest 529 funds in any number of investment options, including stocks, bonds and target date funds, though investment options for 529 plans tend to be more limited than those for Roth IRA accounts.

All this being said, 529 college savings plans do require you to use the money for eligible college tuition and fees. You can withdraw the funds for other purposes if your child doesn’t end up needing them, but you’ll have to pay normal income taxes and a 10 percent penalty on the earnings portion of each withdrawal you make outside of educational expenses.

Loan Student
Bankrate insight
In general, a Roth IRA is best for savers who aren’t sure how much their child will need for college. A 529 plan is better if you need to put away more money at once.

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Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson writes expert content on personal finance, credit cards, loyalty and insurance topics. In addition to writing for Bankrate and CreditCards.com, Johnson does ongoing work for clients that include CNN, Forbes Advisor, LendingTree, Time Magazine and more.
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Student loans editor