Recently, I have been exploring the “safe” options inside various 529 plans. This would be a good choice for those who want to feel like they are making continuous gradual progress and avoid the swings of the stock market, similar to what is offered in pre-paid tuition plans in certain states like Florida. The problems with those plans are that they are usually limited to residents only, and your kid often has to go to one of the in-state schools to get the guaranteed tuition benefit. One unique pre-paid type of plan is the Independent 529 plan, but it is also restricted to certain schools (mostly private liberal arts colleges).
Next, there are plans with guaranteed-return funds backed by insurance companies, or certificates of deposit from banks. However, these types of investments are still subject to inflation risk. If a period of high inflation occurs, your returns could be squashed. Even with current deflation concerns, given current government policy I think high inflation in the future is still a potential concern.
So what’s left?
CollegeSure Tuition-Indexed CDs
Offered by the College Savings Bank, these are FDIC-insured certificates of deposit which offer an interest rate linked to college tuition levels. The CollegeSure CD earns an annual percentage yield (APY) over the life of the investment that is 3.00% less than the college inflation rate. (For a while, this margin was only 1.5%.) These are only available through either the Montana or Arizona 529 plans, but you can use the proceeds towards a school in any state.
The CDs are available in maturities ranging from 1 to 22 years, so you are basically pre-paying tuition at a fixed premium. Here’s an illustration from their site:
Changes in costs are tracked by the Independent College 500 Index (IC500), which is derived from the average tuition plus housing costs of 500 private colleges. Over the last 10 years, the college inflation rate has been 5.4% annualized, Over the last 20 years, it was 5.7% annualized. Of course, this is just an average and it both excludes public universities and ignores the average aid packages given out, but it seems to be a reasonable index.
Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds
Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are bonds that promise you a total return that adjusts with the CPI index for inflation. Very generally, it works like this: if the stated real yield is 2% and inflation ends up at 4%, your return would be 6%. TIPS are issued and backed by full faith of the U.S. government. Right now, they are only available in 529 plans in the form of mutual funds like the Vanguard Inflation Indexed Bond Fund. Some plans offer them as part of their age-based investment mixes, but a few offer them as standalone investment options. The Ohio 529 plan ($25 bonus) looks to offer the cheapest option, with an annual expense ratio of 0.32%.
The actual real yield you get varies, but here is some historical market data for a maturity of 10-years, which is close to the average mutual of the Vanguard fund:
To make a rough estimate, I’d say you average about 2% real before fees. After about 0.3% in fees, you’d end up with 1.7% + inflation.
Inflation is tracked here by the CPI-U (Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers), a number tracking the price of a wide basket of goods and services. From January 1999 to January 2009, the annualized inflation rate was about 2.5%. Over the last 20 years, it has been about 3.0%.
It does not focus on college tuition, or even include it explicitly as far as I know. However, there should be some correlation to college tuition.
So which is better?
Would you rather have:
If we use the average numbers from the last 10 years, the CollegeSure CD would have earned roughly 2.4% annually and the TIPS fund would have earned roughly 4.2% annually. This would seem to tilt in favor of TIPS, but there are two problems:
- Unlike with the CollegeSure CD, you can’t match the maturity of the TIPS fund with your goals. It’s more or less fixed at 10 years forever. For example, if you only have 2 years left until college, you might want to start moving money out because you can still lose principal in the short-term due to interest rate fluctations.
- If the rate of college tuition rises significantly higher than overall inflation by greater than 4.7% a year, then the TIPS fund would fall short.
One could always split money between the two as well, but for not I’m just investing in the TIPS. College inflation may continue to outpace overall inflation (or it may not), but I doubt it will do so by more than 4.7% a year for an extended period. Also, I believe that investment options in 529s will only improve with time. One day, I expect to be able to buy individual TIPS to more closely match maturities with our time horizon.
This is not to say I’ll necessarily be 100% TIPS – I’ll most likely throw a bit of stocks in there – but I think it’ll be a big component of our plan.