Comparing Your 529 In-State Tax Deduction vs. Better Out-of-State Plans

50statesI’m getting ready to put down a decent chunk of money into a 529 college savings plan, which means lots of research as there are a lot of options and nuances. A general plan for those without strong investment preferences would be to go with one of the age-based portfolios from a consistently top-rated plan by Morningstar, or your in-state plan if the tax deduction is juicy enough.

But how exactly do you compare them? The easiest way to calculate your in-state tax benefits is to use a tool from either Vanguard or SavingforCollege.com.

Let’s say you are a married Virginia resident making $100,000 in household taxable income and you want to contribution $4,000 a year to college. Here’s what the Vanguard tool says:

vg529tool

The big block of text explains the assumptions the tool had to make in order to keep things simple. Note that in addition to the state tax savings, you have to consider that you’ll have less state tax to deduct on your federal return (if you itemize deductions).

The SavingForCollege tool comes to the same conclusion regarding tax savings (minus a rounding difference). However, it also goes one step further and helps you quantify the relative value of your in-state tax deduction.

cs529tool

In order for the out-of-state 529 plan to make up the difference from the lost state tax benefit, it would have to achieve better net investment returns of 0.25% per year over the 18 year time period.

So if your in-state plan offers similar desired investments but with expense ratios that were 0.25% higher than the best out-of-state plan, you may actually want to forgo the tax deduction. Note that this number is also based on a set of default assumptions like an 18-year investment period and a 6% annual returns for both plans (you can edit these as you like).

But wait! Some state plans allow you to roll your assets over to another state after making the contribution, and keep the tax deduction. So you could make the contribution, grab the tax credit, and then roll it over into another state’s plan. (You are allowed to have multiple 529 plans.) However, many states have a recapture or “clawback” provision that will make you pay back the tax benefit somehow. For example, if you perform a rollover or non-qualified withdrawal from the Virginia 529 plan, the principal portion will be added back to your Virginia taxable income (to the extent of any prior deductions).

529 Plan Tax Benefits Are Subject To Future Change

529During the most recent State of the Union address, the President’s proposal includes removing one of the current key tax advantages for 529 college savings plans. It is important to remember that this is only a proposal and is unlikely to pass a Congress with a Republican-majority. But it does serve as a reminder that the features of all tax-advantaged accounts are subject to future change.

Section 529 plans currently offer excellent tax advantages for college savings. You put in after-tax money, and that money is allows to grow on a tax-deferred basis, and as long as future withdrawals are used for qualified education expenses, there are no taxes on the back-end either.

The proposed changes are to now tax withdrawals (capital gains only) as ordinary income, leaving only the ongoing tax-deferral aspect. In exchange, the annual limits of educational tax credits would be increased along with other changes.

A quick history lesson on 529 plans. Per Wikipedia, Section 529 plans have only been around since 1996, and started out with withdrawals taxed as ordinary income. Tax-free withdrawals for qualified educational expenses were only added in 2001 on a temporary basis (scheduled to expire in 2010) but then in 2006 they were made “permanent” (not scheduled to expire). That is why this is referred to as a “roll back”.

The concern now is that the tax advantages only benefit a small group of people (read: rich folks). From CNN Money:

An analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that in 2010 less than 3% of families saved in a 529 plan. The GAO estimated that families who saved in 529s had a “median financial asset value” that was 25 times that of families without a 529.

But the College Savings Foundation, citing an investment industry analysis, noted that in 2014, over 70% of 529 plans were owned by households with income below $150,000.

The lesson here is that not all tax benefits are considered “sacred”, especially if they can be spun as rich vs. poor. For example, in my opinion the ability to inherit IRAs (“Stretch IRAs”) in order to give your children decades more of tax-free growth probably won’t last forever. But the idea of taxing Roth IRA withdrawals would be very hard sell as it would broadly affect people across various income levels.

I don’t think I would have minded if this was for a newly-designed plan, but I dislike the idea of penalizing the many families (like myself) who have placed their money in a 529 due primarily to the promised tax benefit (which can’t be withdrawn early without penalties). (Edit: The proposal language actually only refers to “new” contributions, so existing contributions should be grandfathered. Might make for some confusing accounting.) Still, as the parent of two kids under 3, I have to decide whether to keep putting money into these things without knowing what the rules will be in the future.

More: WhiteHouse.gov, WSJ

529 College Savings Plans Now Allow Two Investment Changes Per Year

529Here’s a quick note about a change in 529 college savings plans. Up until recently, you were only allowed one investment change per year, per beneficiary. Starting in 2015, a change in federal law means that you are now allowed two investment changes per calendar year, per beneficiary.

Specifically, this is due to a provision of the new ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act. For those that like history lessons, this Fairmark article has more background on why 529s restrict investment changes at all.

Now, the rules have always permitted a change in investment options any time you change the account’s beneficiary, so people have also used this as a workaround although it may not be wise to abuse it. Changing your asset allocation all the time usually isn’t a good idea either, but now you have a little more flexibility (i.e. you can undo a change you regret making!).

Morningstar Top 529 College Savings Plan Rankings 2014

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Investment research firm Morningstar has released their annual 529 College Savings Plans Research Paper and Industry Survey. While the full survey appears restricted to paid premium members, they did release their top-rated plans for 2014. Remember to first consider your state-specific tax benefits that may outweigh other factors. If you don’t have anything compelling available, you can open a 529 plan from any state.

Morningstar uses a Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating scale for the top plans and Neutral or Negative for the rest. The criteria include five P’s:

  • People. Who’s behind the plans? Who are the investment consultants picking the underlying investments? Who are the mutual fund managers?
  • Process. Are the asset-allocation glide paths and funds chosen for the age-based options based on solid research? Whether active or passive, how is it implemented?
  • Parent. How is the quality of the program manager (often an asset-management company or board of trustees which has a main role in the investment choices and pricing)? Also refers to state officials and their policies.
  • Performance. Has the plan delivered strong risk-adjusted performance, both during the recent volatility and in the long-term? Is it judged likely to continue?
  • Price. Includes factors like asset-weighted expense ratios and in-state tax benefits.

Here are the Gold-rated plans for 2014 (no particular order):

  • T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, Alaska
  • Maryland College Investment Plan
  • Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, Nevada
  • Utah Educational Savings Plan

Here are the consistently top-rated plans from 2010-2014. This means they were rated either Gold or Silver (or equivalent) for every year the rankings were done from 2010 through 2014.

  • T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, Alaska
  • Maryland College Investment Plan
  • Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, Nevada
  • CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan, Ohio
  • CollegeAmerica Plan, Virginia (Advisor-sold)

I collected the previous individual year rankings from 2010-2013 last year. Utah only missed on out the consistent list because they weren’t top-ranked in 2010.

Again, either you go for the in-state tax savings, or pick a top plan from any state. Ignoring state tax differences, my standard recommendation is to pick either Nevada or Utah, although many other state plans may have specific investments that will work just fine. The Vanguard-branded 529 Plan has low costs, decent investment variety, and a long-term commitment to passing on future cost-savings. The Utah 529 plan has very low costs and is highly customizable for DIY investors.

529 College Savings Plans: State-by-State Tax Benefit Comparison

When choosing a 529 college savings plan, you’ll often have to weigh any in-state benefits with the superior investment options from an out-of-state plan. Every state seems to have their own unique combination of tax deductions and/or matching grants. Morningstar ran an analysis comparing the home-state tax benefits for a hypothetical family saving for college.

We selected a hypothetical family of four that earns $50,000, or close to the national median household income. In our scenario, the family has two children and contributes $100 per month to each child’s 529 account, for a total contribution level of $2,400 per year. We looked at the state tax benefits as of October 2014 and calculated the dollar value for each plan.

Here is a chart of their results (click for original image):

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Keep in mind that tax benefits can change, as can the quality and cost of each state’s 529 plan. An expensive plan can switch administrators and transform into a cheap plan the next year. A cheap plan usually stays that way, although it might get a little more expensive. Some states let you grab the tax deduction and then immediately roll over the assets to any outside plan; other states “recapture” the tax deduction if do you that.

Charts: Average New Car Price vs. Average Student Loan Debt 1990-2014

When I was a senior in high school, I still remember my parents offering me a new luxury car instead of tuition assistance. Although I’m pretty sure it was only a test, it did serve to remind me of the cost of tuition and not to waste it. Seeing the average student debt of graduates is now over $30k, I wanted to see how the price of a new car and student debt tracked. These are the best charts that I could fine.

The green line in the first chart tracks the average cost of a new vehicle as rising from ~$15,000 to ~$27,000, within the time period of 1990 to present. I don’t believe the green line is inflation-adjusted. You can see it runs from roughly $15,000 to roughly $27,000. (Source: Atlantic)

newcarprice

The second chart below tracks the average student debt upon graduation over basically the same timeframe, 1990 to present. The non-inflation-adjusted value has risen gone from ~$9,000 to ~$33,000. (Source: WSJ)

avgstudentdebt

It is hard to equate the two values because student debt is just the amount left over after the parent (usually) pays as much as they can while the student is in school. However, this USA Today article suggests that since 2010 parents on average have been paying less.

Five years ago, only half of families reported using grants and scholarships to pay for college. This year, two-thirds of families did, the study shows. [...] Meanwhile, parents are contributing less of their income and savings toward college costs, covering 27% of college costs compared with 37% in 2010, the study shows.

At the same time, other reports show that for parents with top 20% incomes, education spending has nearly doubled as a share of their total budget.

Average student debt is definitely growing faster than new car price. But in terms of total size, it is still comparable to the cost of a new car. People finance new cars all the time. Does that make student loans less scary? I don’t know, because financing a new car has always scared me a lot too.

Even after taking the tuition assistance from my parents, I still came out of college with roughly $30,000 in student debt myself, above-average at the time. I like to think that I got better value of my degree than a new car. :)

College Tuition Hasn’t Risen As Much As You Think

gradcapThe new fall semester is underway, which means more college articles! Morgan Housel of Fool.com recently talked about how the increasing cost of college is exaggerated (emphasis mine):

According to the College Board, the annual sticker price of attending a private four-year college increased from $17,040 in 1992 to $29,060 in 2012, adjusted for overall inflation. But grants and scholarships more than doubled during that period. On net, the median annual cost of attending private college went from $10,010 in 1992 to $13,380 in 2012, meaning the amount students actually paid grew half as fast as the sticker price suggests.

Ditto for public four-year schools. The sticker price of tuition was $3,810 in 1992, and $8,660 by 2012, adjusted for overall inflation. That’s a gain of 4.2% per year. But the actual amount students paid went from $1,920 to $2,910, or an annualized gain of 2%. Adjusted for grants, the inflation-adjusted cost of two-year college has actually declined over the last 20 years.

Why would schools balloon the sticker price but make it up with scholarships? A lot of it is marketing. If I say, “Billy, tuition is $20,000 a year,” it sounds high. If I say, “Billy, tuition is $40,000 a year, but we’ll give you a scholarship to bring it down to $20,000,” it’s an offer he can’t refuse. There’s also a rich student, Jimmy, whose parents will pay $40,000 without batting an eye. Jimmy is actually making Billy’s scholarship possible.

By those numbers, the cost of 4-year public college grew at 2% annually above inflation over that 20 year period, while the cost of 4-year private college grew at 1.5% annually above inflation.

The average student debt is roughly $30,000, about the price of the average new car. As Jim of the FreeBy50 blog points out, only a tiny 0.3% of graduates end up with over $100,000 of student loan debt. Any media piece about a struggling student with a six-figure student loan is an outlier.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t problems. For one, the wages of new graduates are stagnant. But the sky is not falling.

Increasingly, parents should look at listed tuition prices like the sticker price of a car. It’s just a starting point for negotiations. Colleges, especially private colleges, can easily adjust what they actually charge per student based on two variables:

  • Their financial situation, using need-based aid.
  • Their desirability as an applicant, using merit-based aid.

Universities have all sorts of financial aid tricks to adjust actual out-of-pocket costs… various grants and scholarship funds that they can draw from, work-study guarantees, comped room & board, and so on. You can even negotiate your aid package with them further after getting your acceptance letter.

In fact, the industry term is tuition discount rate, which measures the upfront tuition discount given directly from private universities, thus excluding outside scholarships, tax breaks, or subsidies. The NACUBO tuition discount rate for 2013 was 45% and had risen every year for the previous 7 years.

If Billy is a somewhat borderline applicant and his parents have a high income, he’ll may get accepted but must pay full sticker price. If Billy is a very strong applicant, he may get accepted with a partial or full scholarship regardless of income.

This is why parent shouldn’t automatically just tell their kid to go to a state public school. If your child finds the right fit, they could go to private school for close to or less than the cost of public. Many households with modest income and financial assets will be offered substantial grants. Of course, you have to be ready to say “no” if your kid gets in without any aid, meaning the total cost is more than a house (my personal fear!).

Effect of Student Loan Debt on Homeownership Rate

Multiple sources are suggesting that increasing student loan debt levels will have a significant impact on future housing prices because people will delay their home purchases (or put them off entirely). Although that seems like a reasonable assumption, I haven’t actually seen any hard data on it.

In a recent Vanguard research paper titled No bubble to burst: U.S. student debt is not housing [pdf], they took data from the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances and U.S. Census Bureau and found that:

Although financing a bachelor’s degree with student debt decreases the likelihood of a typical 30-year-old college graduate purchasing a home by –1.7%, obtaining that degree also increases the likelihood of purchasing a home by 10.8%, relative to not attending college at all.

vanguard_home

In the end, the conclusion seems to still be consistent with other findings. Getting that college degree is still “worth it” financially, even with the accompanying debt, at least on average. Your income is higher, you’re less likely to be unemployed, and you are more likely to own a home.

vanguard_home2

I suppose the primary thing to avoid is to not be above average on the debt. If you have to take on $120,000+ of debt just to get a 4-year degree, you’re probably going to the wrong school anyway. If the school really wanted you, they’d offer you a better aid package with grants and/or tuition waivers.

Tennessee Offers Free 2-Year College Tuition for All High School Graduates

collegeTennessee lawmakers recently approved a program that would cover tuition and fees at two-year colleges for any high school graduate. The “Tennessee Promise plan” is the first of its kind in the U.S., although reportedly Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon are considering similar plans. It will be interesting to see if it succeeds in making higher education more affordable.

Participants will have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend mandatory meetings, work with a mentor, and perform community service. The program is also “last money in” after other scholarships and grants. I hope that they will also make sure that any credits earned will transfer over to 4-year universities and that the courses are rigorous enough that the students don’t arrive at a significant disadvantage. If successful, this could essentially halve the cost of a in-state Bachelor’s degree, as most students will be able to live at home for the first 2 years as well.

I went to a well-respected public university, and while there got to know several community college transfer students as both an undergrad and graduate student instructor. As a whole, I found them to be much more hard-working and excited about their studies. I don’t have hard numbers but I’d be willing to bet that the junior transfers actually got better grades than those of us who entered as freshman. (Obviously those who got accepted as transfers were a selected group, not representative of all community college students. They also tend to be older, which can help with maturity.)

Free community college may also reduce the significant number of people who enroll at a 4-year university, rack up student loan debt, and don’t finish. According to this Slate article, 20% of those who enroll full-time at a 4-year program don’t finish within 6 years. Community colleges can also have low completion rates, but it is especially awful to have no degree and a big pile of debt.

Also related: We know student loan debt is growing, but now delinquency rates are increasing as well.

Daycare Costs vs. In-State College Tuition

There are many articles about rising college tuitions and how to best save for college. But according a recent study, in 31 states the annual cost of day care for an infant exceeds the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public colleges. From this WaPo article:

We accept that it typically takes 18 years to sock away a sizeable-enough college nest egg. Considering that child care is an equivalent, if not greater, expense and that the average maternal age at first child birth is 26, this suggests that we should similarly start putting money away for day-care expenses when we’re roughly 8 years old.

Here’s the state-by-state breakdown:

daycarecollege

Can You Ace This 3-Question Financial Literacy Quiz? – Only 1/3 of Americans Surveyed Did

There is a lot of policy talk about increasing financial literacy in order to improve people’s decision-making. The Conversable Economist blog discusses a paper that digs into this subject, called “The Economic Importance of Financial Literacy” (found via Counterparties). In order to measure current levels of financial knowledge, a very short survey was conducted on a nationally representative group of Americans age 50+ to. Only 34% of respondents answered all three questions below correctly:

Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow:

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Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1 percent per year and inflation was 2 percent per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy:

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Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”

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The first question measures numeracy or the capacity to do a simple calculation related to compounding of interest rates. The second question measures understanding of inflation, again in the context of a simple financial decision. The third question is a joint test of knowledge about ‘stocks’ and ‘stock mutual funds’ and of risk diversification, since the answer to this question depends on knowing what a stock is and that a mutual fund is composed of many stocks.

If you’ve been following this subject, sadly this isn’t be a surprise. Many similar tests confirm that the level of financial literacy in the U.S. is low. There is a lot of debate about the best way to solve this problem, from high school classes to adult education programs. Nothing has been found to be all that great (so far).

My take is that we should continue working on financial education as there is a lot of room for improvement, but also consider that many poor financial decisions can’t be solved by learning some definitions. The root cause is often a lack of non-academic skills like self-control, ability to delay gratification, and persistence. Most people know that they should spend less and save for the future. They just don’t necessarily do it.

College Tuition Growth Rate vs. Stock / Bond Investment Performance

Inside this Morningstar article discussing the choice between a prepaid 529 plan or a 529 college-savings account, there was an updated chart comparing the 10-year growth rates of tuition at 4-year public and private universities, the S&P 500 index, and the Barclays US Aggregate Bond index. A blended 60% stock and 40% bond portfolio would have returned 6.34% annualized.

There used to be some great prepaid 529 options out there, but they have been gradually going away. Only a few states even offer a prepaid plan anymore (Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington). I’m not familiar enough to recommend any one in particular, but I do know people who still invest in both the Washington and Texas plans. You should look for one that provides at least some investment return if the student ends up going to an out-of-state school.

For many of us the traditional stock/bond route will have to do, which we see would only have just about kept up with tuition inflation over the least 10 years. I still can’t see tuition compounding away at 8% annually for the next 20 years, but I will probably make my 529 contributions under the assumption that a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio will only keep up with tuition over the long-term (as opposed to contributing less and hoping stock performance will cover the gap).