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Coronavirus Shakes Colleges But 529 Plans Stand Firm

Tax-advantaged savings vehicles remain a smart choice for most parents, even as higher education is being transformed.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Colleges face an uncertain future as the coronavirus disrupts U.S. higher education. How should parents, especially those with younger children, set money aside for college costs when things are so unpredictable? 

The go-to college savings vehicle for wealthier families has long been the tax-advantaged 529 plan offered by many states. Contributions made to 529 accounts are eligible for deductions or credits against state income taxes. Earnings in the accounts grow tax-free and withdrawals don't trigger taxes as long as they're used for certain educational expenses.

Higher education may change, but there will still be bills to pay. That’s why most college finance experts I spoke to agreed that for many high earners, making at least some contribution to a 529 plan will continue to make sense.

Recent modifications have made 529s more flexible and more attractive in an unpredictable world. Money in the funds can now be used for trade schools or vocational programs, and a portion can be used for K-12 education or to pay off student loans.

The familiar advantages of 529s will continue to apply. If structured properly, they tend to trigger fewer restrictions on financial aid than other types of savings accounts. An exception to the annual $15,000 federal gift limit makes them well suited to big gifts from generous grandparents — the Internal Revenue Service allows front-loading five years of gifts, or $75,000, into a single 529 contribution. And if the intended recipient decides against going to college, another child or qualified family member can tap the funds instead.

Coronavirus-induced investment losses have made some parents worry that their 529 plans will come up short just as they’re on the hook to pay for their kids' tuitions, but these concerns seem to be overblown, according to data from Morningstar. Their research shows that given the annual returns for most portfolios over the nine years ending in December 2019, it's reasonable to think that most 529s will be able to recoup losses from the market downturn in the first quarter of 2020, even for those nearing college.

Still, it’s important in such an unpredictable market environment for investors to stick with funds that shift to more conservative allocations as their children approach 18.

It's also prudent to minimize fees by choosing plans that are sold directly to investors rather than through advisers. And if you expect the cost of college to start coming down, don't overfund your 529.

And it’s still a good idea to open a 529 when your child is small. Many performance models assume that investors start funding the plans at birth, but most people open the accounts when their child is seven, says Morningstar's Madeline Hume.

For some savers, other types of accounts may be a better fit than the 529s. If you're unsure your child (or children) will be attending college and don't want to get hit with the penalties for withdrawing money for non-educational expenses, or if you have a short investing time horizon, or if you want more investment options than the funds offered by 529 plans, there are other options.

A Roth IRA, which taxes income used to fund the individual retirement account but not earnings growth and withdrawals, can be used for educational expenses as well as retirement, and offers more investment choices, like individual stocks. But the accounts have income and contribution limits -- a married couple filing jointly with a modified adjusted gross income over $206,000 can't make direct contributions.

There are also custodial accounts known as UGMAs and UTMAs, which don't have to be used for educational expenses and can be funded with just about anything. But they don't have the tax benefits of a 529, and may reduce financial aid awards.

Milo Benningfield, a financial adviser in San Francisco, said that for some clients who want more control, he's set up separate brokerage accounts for educational expenses rather than 529s. They may not get the biggest tax benefit, but for some savers, the unlimited investment options are more important.

Benningfield said he didn't set up a 529 plan years ago for his son who's now college age because at the time, there wasn't the option to use the funds for private high school. Now that they can be, a new level of flexibility might make other 529-wary savers think twice.

To contact the author of this story:
Alexis Leondis at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]

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