529 Plans

Quiz: How Well Do You Know 529 College Plans?

Do you know which kind of savings plan has no market risk? Do you know whether you'd lose money if your child didn't go to college? How about the rules on where they can go? We’ve got the answers.

Saving for college keeps getting more challenging. By 2024, the average sticker price for a year at public in-state college is expected to climb to $34,000, and for private school undergrads it could be $76,000, according to the College Board’s 2016 study “Trends in College Pricing.”

For people looking for ways to fund future college expenses, 529 savings plans and prepaid tuition plans could be the answer. They allow parents and grandparents to sock away money for college tax-free that grows in investment value as children grow up. To see if you understand how they work (and their key differences), try this quiz.

5. True or false: Parent- or student-owned 529 plans are treated as a parental asset in the financial aid calculation.

TRUE. 529 plan balances impact the federal student aid calculation for need-based aid. Assets in accounts owned by a dependent student or one of their parents are considered parental assets on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). When a school calculates the student's Expected Family Contribution (EFC), only a maximum of 5.64% of parental assets are counted. This is quite favorable compared with other student assets, which are counted at 20%. A higher EFC means less financial aid award.

6. True or false: A grandparent cannot own a 529 plan for his or her grandchild.

FALSE. Having a grandparent open and fund an account is good from an asset value perspective because assets of grandparents are not reportable on FAFSA. However, distributions from a grandparent-owned 529 plan may be subject to reporting on the FAFSA as student income. Furthermore, if the grandparent establishes a 529 plan for your child, the grandparent maintains legal control of the account. He or she could change the beneficiary or use money in the plan for personal expenses (subject to income tax and 10% penalty on earnings).

7. True or false: Private College 529 is the only prepaid 529 plan not run by a state.

TRUE. Historically, prepaid plans were state run and offered advanced tuition credits for in-state universities only. Now, nearly 300 private colleges and universities in the U.S. have joined together to offer tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices.

8. True or false: Unlike 529 savings plans, a prepaid tuition 529 plan does not have market risk.

TRUE. One major benefit of a prepaid tuition plan over a 529 savings plan is the lack of market risk. The investment performance of a prepaid plan is measured by tuition inflation, NOT how the stock market performs. Basically, you buy tuition credits at a set price (typically a premium over the current cost of college) to be used for your child’s education years down the road.

But keep in mind that while you’re not facing market risk, you are facing the risk that the plan you’ve bought into could falter over the years. For example, College Illinois is on a path to insolvency, according to a recent story in Crain’s Chicago Business. College Illinois is a state-sponsored plan, unlike Private College 529, which is not tied to a specific state.

9. True or false: Like a 529 plan, the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) offers tax-advantaged savings for college.

TRUE. The Coverdell ESA grows tax-free, and funds can be used toward college costs. Certain K-12 expenses are also covered by the Coverdell ESA. Unlike the 529 plan, there are income restrictions on Coverdell contributions and special rules for beneficiary changes.

10. True or false: Gifting money to children is more favorable than 529 plans, from a financial aid and income tax perspective.

FALSE. Historically, gifts of money to children through Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) accounts were considered the preferred method for college financing. However, UGMA funds may be subject to the “kiddie tax” rules whereby the child is taxed at the parent’s higher income tax rate; 529 plans are not subject to a kiddie tax. Colleges also count UGMA accounts as a student-owned (rather than a parent-owned) asset in the financial aid calculation — resulting in a lower financial aid award.

About the Author

Deborah L. Meyer, CPA/PFS, CFP®

CEO, WorthyNest LLC

Deborah L. Meyer, CPA/PFS, CFP®, is a fee-only financial planner and investment adviser based in greater Saint Louis. As the owner of WorthyNest, Deb helps conscientious parents build wealth. She is a proud member of NAPFA, Fee-Only Network, XY Planning Network, and the AICPA. Deb is passionate about family, faith, finance and travel. In fact, she is blogging about her family's recent three-month adventure in Spain.

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