With student loan debt crushing American families, many are evaluating how to get the most of their 529 college-savings plans.
Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Louise Ensign takes a look at the wide variation in plan options, both within and between individual states, and offers some resources and risk considerations:
Age-based portfolios within 529 college-savings plans are supposed to make things easier for parents who lack investment savvy. But they’ve gotten a lot more complicated in recent years.
These accounts, which automatically shift into more conservative investments as a child nears college age, have long held the majority of assets in state-sponsored, tax-advantaged 529 plans. In recent years, many 529 plans have come to offer not one, but three or four age-based tracks that vary by risk levels or type of fund management.
There are aggressive tracks geared toward parents with higher risk tolerance who are particularly worried about returns keeping up with skyrocketing tuition costs. There are cautious tracks for parents who remember the beating many standard age-based portfolios took in 2008. For parents skeptical of active management and worried about fees, there are options that use index funds as the underlying holdings.
In all, there were 170 age-based investment tracks within 529 plans as of mid-September, according to Morningstar Inc. In 2006, there were 100.
But all of this choice can be overwhelming for parents who aren’t buying through an adviser. “You’re in your living room at 10 p.m. after you put your kids to bed trying to figure this out,” says Laura Pavlenko Lutton, head of Morningstar’s 529-plan research and ratings team.
The article concludes with some tipis and suggestions:
The difference between a plan’s most and least aggressive tracks can be wide. In the direct-sold College Savings Iowa 529 plan, the most aggressive age-based option leaves 20% of the portfolio in equity funds when a child is in college; the least aggressive has 0% in stocks then.
There are few resources out there to help parents decide which age-based plan is right for them. Savingforcollege.com rates 529 plans overall and offers online tools to help parents compare them. Morningstar also provides this, and breaks out some data for the specific age-based tracks.So, for families that plan on buying direct, the decision often comes down to introspection. “It’s all how much risk you can take and still sleep well at night in your attempt to increase your overall returns,” says Joe Hurley, the founder of Savingforcollege.com. “It’s no different than retirement investing.”