When I first began reading that President Obama was considering reducing the tax benefits for savers who make use of 529 plans and other education savings accounts to reduce the cost of education-related expenses, I was surprised. It has been my understanding that 529 plans, all though I do not have one, are intended to help the middle class by encouraging tax-efficient savings for education.
According to the statistics on 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, these college savings plans have not lived up to the expectations. The middle class has mostly ignored these options for preparing for their children’s and grandchildren’s education. Those taking advantage of the tax benefits might be families who may not need the incentive.
The tax benefit for 529 plans is simple. The growth in these accounts will accumulate tax free, unlike growth in regular investment accounts. When you sell investments and withdraw that proceeds from a regular investment or savings account, you owe income tax on gains and interest. You will also owe income tax if your regular investments offer any dividends. This is not the case with 529 plans. You can withdraw your investment or savings for education expenses tax-free, according to how the law is written today.
Most startling when reviewing the demographic statistics was the fact that families with 529 plans or Coverdell accounts have, on average, twenty-five times the median net worth of those families without education savings plans. Those with the accounts have three times the median income of the others, or $142,400 versus $40,300.
So while in theory, the 529 account could save the middle class money, it’s generally not working out that way. Despite the popularity of 529 plans among financial writers and advisers, it just hasn’t caught on among the middle class. That probably could have been expected; wealthier families generally are in a better position to take advantage of all that is presented to everyone. The same criticism can be made regarding 401(k) plans, which have been around much longer than 529 plans.
The middle class was so slow to adopt 401(k) plans that companies started automatically enrolling employees in the retirement plans to jump-start their savings. This, while beneficial to some employees, was a bigger win for 401(k) plan administrators and managers of the (usually expensive) funds included in 401(k) plans. In this “win-win” scenario, middle class investors receive a supposed benefit, while the financial industry feeds off a growing source of revenue.
There are a number of specific reasons that 529 plans have failed to take root in the middle class investment and savings portfolio, according to reports by and discussions with 529 plan officials.
The middle class has difficulty saving. Whether this is true from a financial perspective or just a matter of mindset, in general, the middle class sees saving for their children’s future needs for funding of higher education an unattainable goal. In many cases, families believe they need to choose between saving for retirement before saving for their children’s education, and saving for retirement is a necessity that can’t be fulfilled. Thus, the priority is always one’s own retirement.
The hierarchy of needs is real. Especially through the recession, the financial focus of the middle class has been on basic necessities, even more basic than one’s own retirement. It is impossible to make saving for the children’s future when there isn’t enough income to cover food and shelter. If you have to choose between paying the mortgage and investing for any other purpose, whether one’s own retirement or in a 529 plan for the children, the mortgage always comes first. Urgency trumps importance.
The industry hasn’t done a good job of marketing to the middle class. Half of all parents of future college students just don’t know what 529 plans are. Financial aid is complicated even without the inclusion of 529 plans, so there are two paths that one can arrive at the idea that middle class families don’t understand 529 plans. Either they are just not receiving the marketing message, or they are receiving the message, but it’s drowned out by the complex industry surrounding the financial requirements of a college education.
Parents underestimate the cost of a college education. It’s possible that many parents in the middle class don’t anticipate their children’s future expenses being so large that they would necessitate advance planning. They could be underestimating the cost (and annual increase in cost) of tuition or overestimating the amount of financial aid available in the form of loans and scholarships. Parents may be unaware of how the burden of student loans has grown significantly over the last generation.
If these numbers were illustrated better, even though some in the financial industry are continuing to attempt communication, perhaps the middle class might be motivated to think about the future needs of their children.
Is Obama’s proposal to limit the tax benefits of 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts the right solution? At this point, we’d probably be better off working on how to encourage higher education through tax policy than discouraging it. Right now, wealthy families are more likely to take advantage of these tax benefits, so solutions should be focused on how to encourage middle and lower income families to save more.
Simplify the options. In its current form, each state can support its own 529 plan, plus there is a 529 plan that relates to private colleges specifically. States usually partner with one specific provider in the industry. For example, New Jersey partners with Franklin Mutual Advisors (a branch of Franklin Templeton Investments). Vanguard is a partner with several other states including New York and Nevada to provide qualifying 529 plans in those states.
On the one hand, choice is limited depending on the state in which you live (if you want to save money on state income taxes), but on the other hand, the information is often presented in a way that makes it difficult for investors to choose plans. If 529 plans were presented more like IRAs, some confusion might be eliminated. You can open an IRA with almost any investment company and receive the same tax benefits. 529 plans could theoretically work just as easily.
Another way to simplify would be to offer one 529 plan across the entire United States. All investors would invest in the same plan, and this would eliminate the problem of choice. Earnings could be tax-free at the federal level and in every state.
Offer more incentives. In order to encourage more middle class and low income families to save for their children’s education — an even more important goal among low income families because a college education is a necessary part of moving out of poverty — the government can change the way incentives are presented for saving. For example, the government could match, in the form of a credit into the account or in the form of a tax credit, contributions into 529 accounts made by families whose household income falls below a certain level.
Also, the government could consider a contribution into a 529 account a tax deduction, so a family that has an income of $40,000 and chooses to deposit $1,000 into a 529 would be taxed only on $39,000. That tax deduction could be limited only to households that fall below a certain income level.
Another potential incentive would be for the government to automatically create an account for every newborn child, with an initial deposit that can only be withdrawn after at least fifteen years and only for higher education expenses.
Increased communication. Regardless of how the government, the financial industry, or society at large decides to improve the feasibility of 529 accounts for moderate and low income families, the communication needs to improve before more people adopt these plans. Not only does communication need to be clear about the benefits of 529 accounts, but there needs to be a stronger effort to promote the necessity of a college education.
It’s difficult to see children from struggling families believe that college will never be an option for them, particularly when children find themselves needing to contribute as soon as possible to their families’ household income.
If education isn’t a priority, whether out of necessity or out of ignorance of its social and financial benefits, saving for education can never be a priority.
Do you invest in a 529 plan for your children or future children? If not, why not?
Published or updated January 25, 2015.