Q&A: Is it time to rethink college savings?

Dear Liz: My wife and I have three kids ages 4 and younger. We have been diligently saving in our state’s 529 college savings plans for all of them. Now with various concepts of free college and student debt relief gaining traction, I’m wondering if we would be better off simply investing future amounts elsewhere that don’t lock it into educational expenses, which may look very different in 14 to 18 years.

Answer: Politics is the art of the possible. Although some student debt relief is possible, as is some expansion of free college options, it’s hard to imagine a U.S. where college educations are entirely free for everyone.
Even in states that currently offer free two- or four-year public college options, the aid is typically limited to free tuition, which means students still have to pay for books, housing, meals, transportation and other costs. Some programs are need based, which means not all students qualify, and many students choose other non-free options, such as private colleges and graduate school.

So the advice hasn’t changed: If you can save for college, you probably should. You may not be able to cover all the costs of your children’s future education, but anything you save will probably reduce their future debt.
In an uncertain world, 529 college savings plans offer a lot of flexibility. The money can be used tax free for a variety of college expenses, and any unused funds can be transferred to a family member — including yourself or your wife, should either of you want to pursue more education. If you withdraw the money for non-education purposes, only the earnings portion is typically subject to income taxes and the 10% federal penalty.

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