July 11, 2016
It was 20 years ago that Congress legislated “529” plans, tax-advantaged programs to encourage families to save for college. By most measures, the plans have been a blockbuster success, exploding to $250 billion in assets in more than 12 million accounts and helping parents mitigate the rise in tuition costs and fight the student-debt tsunami.
But even blockbusters can be improved. As 529 plans graduate to adulthood, experts say they would like to see several changes to make them even better.
These state-sponsored plans—named for a section of the tax code, and which typically invest in mutual funds—allow college savings to grow tax-free. There is no income limit on who can contribute, and the account can be reassigned to direct relatives of the original beneficiary—a child’s cousins or siblings, for instance—if there is money left over or if the beneficiary doesn’t go to college.
Parents or other adults set up an account as early as possible after a child is born, and contributions up to $14,000 (or $28,000 a couple) in after-tax money during the year are exempt from gift-taxes reporting.The money grows within the plan tax-free and, if it’s withdrawn for qualified higher-education expenses like tuition, room and board, or a computer, no tax is due. The plans often also come with state tax benefits for residents of specific states.
But the plans’ design can be clunky. Here is how financial advisers and college-savings experts say that aspects of the accounts and their use could be improved.