The college acceptance letters have been tucked away and it is a time of senior-itis, prom nights, and graduation celebrations. Spring of senior year in high school is an exhilarating and anxious time for students and their families preparing for the transition to college. Now come the nuts and bolts of paying for it… have you set your student up well for this next phase? There are some strategic decisions that can and should be made to make sure your high school senior (and your family) have more excitement and exhilaration and less anxiety when the time comes!
Currently, the most popular and arguably the most appealing college-savings options are the state-sponsored 529 plans. According to the College Savings Plans Network (CSPN), the popularity of these funds has steadily grown and increased the last decade’s assets by upwards of $100 billion. 529s offer Federal and usually state tax benefits through tax-free investment earnings on accounts ultimately used for qualified education expenses. They allow (and encourage) parents, grandparents, and relatives to participate in the student’s future. And, 529s will not usually affect financial aid status. Another plus is that the unused assets of 529s can transfer to another family member for qualified costs. Each state offers unique versions of these federally tax-exempt plans that generally fall into three categories: direct-investment, advisor-sold, and pre-paid or guaranteed funds.
The direct-investment options offer the greatest flexibility and choice with lower fees and typically no commissions. Regardless of your residency, most state plans are available to all. However, there may be additional tax benefits by using your state plan, as in South Carolina, where you can deduct contributions from your state taxable income and save 7% tax on each dollar spent. Some states, like Illinois, cap their allowable state benefit. Investment menus of plans include either passive (index) funds, actively managed funds or both. Historically, the passive funds have outperformed. Furthermore, funds can be allocated on an age-based option or, what we prefer, a target allocation option, reviewed and rebalanced over time. The ceilings for maximum contributions on direct investment accounts range from $235,000 to $450,000, which can then cover the costs of all tuition, room and board, books, travel, etc.
Guaranteed or pre-paid options are designed to have contributions keep up with the increasing costs of tuition. If you contribute an amount equal to a year’s tuition today, the student will get credit for a full year of tuition when he or she enters school, regardless of the then current cost. Hence, the pre-paid options do protect your investment from any market volatility, but have lower maximums and less flexibility. The advisor-sold 529 plans are also less flexible in investment strategy and pack on higher fees for commissions and management costs.
Other college-savings methods can be a Uniform Gift to a Minor or Trustee (UGMA/UTMA) which are not tax-exempt after the $14,000 gift tax exclusion and also will transfer to the beneficiary at the age of majority. However, these assets have much greater investment flexibility and the first $1,000 of annual earnings (2013 and 2014 limits) are not taxed to the student. Other regular investment accounts provide greater investment flexibility, but earnings are taxed at the owner’s rates. Straight savings options are out there in the form of bonds or an education IRA (Coverdell Education Savings Account), which are tax-exempt for qualified education costs.
There are many options worth reviewing to prepare for the ever-increasing costs of tuition. Some models predict that education costs will more than double over the next 15 years. Starting the process early and putting together a plan with the right mix of contributions, investment selections and tax benefits will help ensure that your student’s high school graduation someday will be all celebration and very little worry about paying for higher education. It will be here sooner than you think!