Should you bail on your 529 plan?

Education savingsLong-time readers know I’m a big fan of using state-run 529 college plans to save for higher education expenses. (Remember the mantra: if you can save for college, you should!) Money in these plans grows tax-free when used for qualified college costs and doesn’t have much impact on financial aid (which is going to be mostly loans, anyway).

But the plans aren’t created equal–in fact, they’re so diverse it’s kind of daunting to track and compare them. Investment research firm Morningstar does just that, though, and every year creates a list of the best (and worst) plans. That list gives us 529 investors a chance to compare our plans against a gold standard and consider whether we need a change.

I’ve changed plans once, from California’s then-middling plan to Nevada’s top-rated one, and was surprised by how easy it was. (We still have some money in California’s plan, which is now higher in Morningstar’s ratings.) Some people are tied to their state’s plan by tax breaks or other incentives, but many aren’t. If you’re not happy with your plan, it’s time to consider a change.

You can read more about it in my Reuters column this week, “Is it time to switch 529 college savings plans?

Will declining enrollment lower college costs?

Education savingsThe number of high school graduates peaked in 2011 at 3.4 million and will drop to about 3.2 million next year. That’s not a huge decline, granted, but it’s a big change from the two previous decades where colleges could count on an ever-growing population of “traditional age” students.

Still, the experts I interviewed for this week’s Reuters column about declining enrollment don’t believe we’ll see lower college costs any time soon. Less demand will moderate the increases, they say, and so will an improved economy. States are likely to restore some of the funds they cut during the recession and its aftermath, which should decrease the pressure to keep raising tuition.

The short version: college demographics, and college costs, are a many-faceted thing. There wasn’t just one factor that led to spiraling tuition costs, and a single factor won’t reverse that trend.

So keep contributing to that 529.