This Wall Street Journal Article addresses the dire straights that 529 Plans are in and how it is affecting families’ abilities to cope with college costs.
- OCTOBER 16, 2008
College Savers Stuck in Stocks as Market Falls
IRS Rule on 529 Plans Allows Just One Portfolio Shift a Year; Weighing a Cheaper School
By JANE J. KIM
A rule designed to protect investors in 529 college-savings plans is having the unintended side effect of preventing them from shifting to more-conservative investments as the stock market swoons.
When Charles Strawbridge of Ashtabula, Ohio, got nervous about the markets this past spring, he wanted to boost the bond allocations in the 529 plans he had set up for his 16- and 19-year-old sons. But because he and his adviser, Matt Olver of Cleveland, had already changed his investment mix in January, he had to keep his current allocation of 20% and 25% in equities for his older and younger sons, respectively.
Now, after watching the accounts drop in recent weeks, he’s telling his older son — who is in the process of transferring colleges — to consider less-expensive schools. “We do have to keep in mind the downturn that the market has had on his available funds,” says Mr. Strawbridge, a 55-year-old accountant. “It was unfortunate that we couldn’t have made the move. It takes a little bit off the table.”
With 529 plans, investors put after-tax dollars into an account that typically offers a range of mutual funds and other investments. Distributions and earnings are tax-free, as long as they’re used for higher education. The plans have grown in popularity in recent years — they held about $110 billion in assets at the end of the second quarter — although the pace of net new investments into the plans has started to slow, according to Citigroup Inc.’s Financial Research Corp..
Amid the current market turmoil, more investors like Mr. Strawbridge are running into one of the quirkier restrictions of these state-sponsored plans: an Internal Revenue Service rule that limits investors to one investment change per calendar year. The rule is intended to keep people from making knee-jerk reactions to market moves, but some investors and financial advisers say it makes the plans overly restrictive. Indeed, the College Savings Plan Network, a membership organization of state 529 officials, investment firms, program managers and others, is considering asking the Treasury Department to raise that limit to four times a year.
But that’s not the only feature of 529 plans that’s causing investors grief right now. Many investors use age-based portfolios that automatically shift to more conservative investments as the child nears college. Yet some of these conservative portfolios may actually hold a high percentage in stocks. North Carolina’s National College Savings Program has an age-based portfolio that can hold just over 50% in stocks, including real-estate securities, just one year before the child starts college. That portfolio, which is part of the state’s CollegeHorizonFunds managed by J.&W. Seligman & Co., was down 15.7% for the 12 months ended Sept. 30. Given the big market drops this month, the plan has likely posted additional losses.
Seligman’s age-based portfolios were designed to create “the opportunity for capital appreciation” while becoming “extremely conservative” in college, says Charles Kadlec, the firm’s managing director. The CollegeHorizonFunds move to 100% cash in the last two years of college, he says.
Other plans with more-aggressive portfolios include Nebraska’s broker-sold AIM College Savings Plan, which can have as much as 40% in equities when the child is one to three years away from college, and South Carolina’s Future Scholars direct-sold plan, which can have up to 33% in equities with college enrollment one to two years away.
Keeping Pace With Tuition
Such equity exposure may help investors keep pace with tuition increases, some investment managers say. “If you’re a senior in high school, you still have five years before you hit your senior year of college,” says Tom Kazmierczak, senior product manager for T. Rowe Price Group Inc.’s 529 unit, whose portfolios for students starting college in 2009 can hold up to 28% in stocks and up to 20% while the child is in college.
Now more than ever, spending the time and effort to plan correctly for college is critical. Analyzing the family financial circumstance as it relates to the calculation of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which drives need-based assistance, shopping for the right college in terms of the student’s academic, financial and personal needs, maximizing the student’s achievements, and exploring alternative payment and financing options, are so important to increase the potential to receive a value education.
Choices become more limited and planning becomes paramount.