Rating the Best College Savings Plans

My weekend financial project is to shore up the kids’ 529 plans. With my oldest child a mere eight years from starting college, and us dreadfully behind in accumulating savings, I have decided it is time to move college savings up the list of priorities a bit. Time to hunt down the best 529 plans available.

The first step will be to conduct a more thorough review of our current investment elections, including the 529 plan itself, and the investment elections within the plan. Like most people, we went with our in-state option since it was a decent plan according to most rankings, and we could benefit from a state tax deduction on contributions. However, after reviewing performance of the limited fund options I’m not so sure it is the best place to park the kids’ college savings funds, tax deduction or not.

Which States Have the Best 529 Plans?

Utah

According to a recent Morningstar article, The Best and Worst 529 College-Savings Plans, it would appear both Utah and Virginia offer solid plans. Morningstar’s write up about the Utah plan sounded the most appealing to me:

For those who want a tax-sheltered way to save for college using Vanguard index funds, this is the plan. Utah’s 529 plan has long been a favorite of ours and remains a strong choice for its low costs, flexibility, and tried-and-true Vanguard index funds. The plan’s fees are a rock-bottom 0.22% to 0.35%, making it one of the cheapest plans in the country.

Hard to go wrong with “rock-bottom” fees and Vanguard Index funds! In fact, I think Vanguard is the best place to open a Roth IRA, too.

Virginia

Virginia offers two 529 options: a direct-sold plan managed by the state gives the flexibility to invest in a variety of different mutual fund companies, and an advisor-sold CollegeAmerica plan which offers a nice mix of American Funds with relatively low fees. From Morningstar’s review:

The state’s other topnotch choice, the advisor-sold CollegeAmerica plan, remains a favorite for its large selection of mostly first-rate American Fund mutual funds that give investors access to a broad array of asset classes, including emerging markets, small-cap foreign stocks, and foreign fixed-income securities. Fees are attractive, too, as most of the plan’s A-share options are below 1.00% in total annual fees.

It is still a good idea to check out your in-state 529 plan, because the ability to deduct your contributions, up to a certain amount, is very appealing. But don’t fall into the trap of investing in a bad plan for a tax deduction. Over the long term, you will come out further ahead by investing in a healthy plan out of state, if necessary.

A Word About Age-Based Allocations

Nearly all 529 college savings plans now offer various levels of age-based allocation, from the most aggressive to to very conservative. One problem with these types of plans, and any targeted-allocation fund for that matter, is that the person managing the fund may have a much different risk tolerance than you do. This could lead to funds being invested too heavily in higher-risk investments too close to college age. A sudden downturn, like the one we saw in the fall of 2008, could quickly pull the rug out from under college plans by decimating a 529 plan balance.

Parents, Secure Your Own Retirement First

I love my kids more than anything, but I also recognize that if I don’t manage to sock away $50,000 in a college fund for them, life goes on. They can work their way through school, like I did, and they can apply for financial aid, grants, scholarships, etc.

I’m not particularly fond of student loans, although some small amount of borrowing could make sense to supplement other funding options. And before all you student loan fans email me, let me just say that I’ve heard from too many 24 year-olds drowning in $75,000 of student loan debt to be persuaded to like them.

For Canadians, a plan similar to a 529 is an RESP (Registered Education Savings Plan). In basic terms, this is an account you can start for your child and make contributions to over the years; it’s a great way to save for post-secondary education in Canada. Be sure to look into this as an option.

As parents, our top priority should be taking care of our own financial futures so that we are not a burden on our children. Once we have paid down debts, built a solid emergency fund, and are contributing to our own retirement plans, then we can turn our attention to college savings. Remember, there are no scholarships for retirement.

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