Saving for College: a Parent’s Guide to 529 College Savings Plans

If you’re like most parents, saving for your children’s college education is a priority and a big challenge. Tuition and related costs at both public and private universities have been rising at 5% per year or more, far exceeding the rate of inflation. To put that into perspective, a child born in 2006 should plan on $110,000 in total expenses for four years at the average in-state public college; $300,000 for four years at a private university.

Financing these costs for one or more children is going to take planning and, most importantly, disciplined savings. Tax-advantaged “529” College Savings plans are the savings vehicle of choice and offer important advantages over other options. A $3,000 annual contribution, beginning at birth, to a growth-oriented 529 plan should pay for one child’s in-state public education, and a $7,500 annual contribution for a four-year private education. A later start means higher annual contribution amounts.

529 Plan Advantages

– Large Tax-Free Contributions: Parents, grandparents, other relatives and even friends can contribute up to $12,000 per year per child, tax-free, to a 529 plan.

– Tax-Free Earnings and Distributions: All earnings in a 529 plan are tax-free. Distributions are free from all federal income and most state income taxes when used for tuition or other qualified college expenses. This makes 529 plans as powerful as Roth IRAs for long-term savings.

– Donors (parents, grandparents, etc.) “own” the 529 assets: Unlike a custodial account that typically becomes the minor’s property at age 18, 529 plan assets are always under the control of the donor.

– 529 plan assets are more advantageous for financial aid considerations: Plan assets are counted at a 5.5% rate by college financial aid offices, compared to the 35% rate used for custodial account assets.

– Unused funds in a 529 can be rolled over to another child’s benefit.

Have I caught your attention? Now the question is which 529 Plan is best for you and your children?

Choosing a 529 Plan

All plans are sponsored by individual states, but are typically available to residents of other states. Some states offer residents a state income tax deduction for contributions to their own plan. So, for residents of these states, that is the way to go. For those without that tax incentive or residents of states without an income tax, you can choose from just about any of the available plans.

Be aware that many 529 plans are heavily promoted by brokerages and other financial institutions and can carry large and completely unnecessary sales charges. Go with a plan with no sales or other load charges. Typical annual fees for asset and account management combined should be 1% or less.

Recommended 529 Plans

There are at least a dozen excellent options to choose from. Among these, we like the TIAA CREF-managed plans (California and others) and the Vanguard-managed plans in Iowa, Nevada, New York and Utah. The Vanguard plans, with their index investment strategies, have operating costs of less than 0.75%. A new entry is the Alaska plan managed by T Rowe Price. It offers a choice of first-rate actively-managed funds and at relatively low cost.

No matter which plan you choose, we strongly recommend an “age-based” investment strategy. These strategies range from Conservative to Aggressive. Age-based programs are dynamic asset allocation programs, similar to Target Retirement date funds. They are heavily invested in stocks when your child is young, gradually converting to more fixed-income and cash as college age approaches. This approach protects against the risk of a major stock market downturn just as the funds are needed.

Martin Weil