March 23, 2017
Updated: 9:50 AM ET | Originally published: Mar 22, 2017
There are 13 million college savings accounts in this country, and more than half received at least one deposit in 2016. Those are decent numbers, and growing—but they cover just a tiny fraction of the country’s college-bound population.
A current bill in the House of Representatives aims to change that. Supporters of H.R. 529 say it could address both a lack of awareness of the plans—by encouraging employers to add 529 plans to their benefits package—as well as inflexible spending rules, by offering more ways to use 529 funds without getting hit with a penalty.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), would let companies contribute up to a $100 match to employee 529 plans without counting it as taxable compensation, and would offer a tax credit to small businesses to help offset the costs of setting up a payroll deduction system. (The bill also provides for similar payroll matches for ABLE account contributions.)
Savers also would be able to use money from a 529 account, penalty-free, for paying off student loans or making charitable contributions. Currently, 529 account holders must pay a 10% penalty on earnings if they use the money for anything but approved college costs.
Although 529 plans have been around for 20 years, growth has been relatively slow for a variety of reasons. One key challenge: Surveys regularly find that many parents have never heard of 529 plans or don’t understand how they work.
Leaders of the College Savings Plans Network, a coalition of state-run college savings programs, hope that 529 plans can follow the path of 401(k) accounts to become a widely offered employee benefit. “When companies got into payroll deductions and matching contributions, there was a huge growth in people participating,” says Young Boozer, the Alabama state treasurer and chairman of the College Savings Plans Network.