According to a survey conducted by the New York-based College Board, college tuition costs are rising faster than the pace of inflation. Between 1993 and 2003, for example, the average cost of tuition and fees for four years rose 47 percent at public colleges and 42 percent at private institutions.
Thus, parents should start saving for college as soon as possible, says Stuart Ritter, a certified financial planner at T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based investment management and mutual fund firm. One way to do so, he says, is by taking advantage of state-sponsored 529 college savings plans.
These plans are becoming popular as a way to save for college because they provide some of the best tax benefits available, including an exemption from federal income tax on withdrawals made for qualified education expenses, and have high contribution limits to help save for college.
As a result, a 529 plan can potentially provide more money to spend on education than other investment products such as taxable accounts and Uniform Gift to Minor Acts (UGMA) accounts, an alternative way to contribute assets to a minor for investment purposes, says Ritter. An individual or a family can usually contribute more than $200,000 total in a 529 plan.
Currently, all states offer some type of 529 plan, with about half offering incentives to in-state residents. So while it may be practical for some parents to turn to their home states first when considering a plan, families are not limited to their own states’ plans. “It could pay to comparison shop,” Ritter says, adding that in addition to looking at potential state tax benefits for their contributions, parents should also evaluate the fees, expenses and investment options.
Another tool, the College Savings Comparison Calculator, compares saving for college in a 529 plan with doing so in a UGMA account.
One caveat is that due to provisions in the tax laws, the federal tax exemption for qualified educational expenses expires in 2010 unless extended by Congress. After that time, earnings would be considered income for the beneficiary – usually still beneficial since most 18-year-olds are in a low tax bracket. Also, earnings on a distribution not used for qualified expenses may be subject to income taxes and a 10 percent federal penalty.
Sorting through the array of 529 plans can be overwhelming, but experts say it is important for parents who are hoping to get the maximum return for their savings.