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Why Now Is a Good Time to Remind Clients to Save for College

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For all those advisors whose clients are saving for their children’s college education or just shelled out thousands of dollars to pay this semester’s bill, take note: September is National College Savings Month. Congress designated the month in 2003 following requests by the National Association of State Treasurers and the College Savings Plan Network.

It’s not only a reminder about the need to save for college, which can soak up close to $250,000 for four years at a private institution (or about one-third to one-half that at a public four-year college) but a month when several 529 college savings plans are giving away several hundred or several thousand dollars to state residents enrolled in their plans.

This year, Georgia and Oklahoma are each offering a $5,529 prize to the parents or grandparents of children born in 2015, and 2014, respectively, as well as several $1,529 prizes, according to Connecticut is offering a $1,529 gift; Nebraska and Utah several $1,000 prizes; and Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio several $529 prizes. California is offering several $500 awards for students ages 3 to 14. All these prizes will take the form of contributions to state 529 plans. Deadlines for entries vary, from late September until the end of December, except for Oklahoma whose deadline is April 14, 2016, just before tax day.

These incentives could potentially increase investments in 529 plans and other college savings plans, which appears to be needed now more than ever. Not only are college costs rising along with student loan debt, but families are saving less for college.

Forty-eight percent of parents with children under 18 saved for college this year, down from 51% in 2014 and 62% in 2009, according to a recent survey by Sallie Mae, one of the country’s largest private student lenders. Families who did save for college put aside less money in 2015 than last year: just over $10,000, compared with over $13,000, the survey found.

A survey by financial research firm Strategic Insight found that only 27% of parents are using 529 plans to save for college despite their tax benefits. Forty-seven percent were bypassing 529 plans when saving for college, and 26% weren’t saving for college at all. “Financial advisors have an opportunity to provide value to clients, given the lack of awareness and understanding of the importance of saving for higher education and saving in an efficient way in terms of tax, financial aid and estate planning with 529 college savings plans,” says Paul Curley, director of college savings research at Strategic Insight and editor of its 529 Dash newsletter.

Lack of money is why many families haven’t saved for college. In its seventh annual survey of parents, kids and money released last month, T. Rowe Price found that two-thirds of the  47% of parents who weren’t saving for their kids’ college education cited a cited a lack of funds. At the same time, 85% of parents expected that their kids would go to college. (Seventy-nine percent of the kids shared that expectation).

As of the second quarter of 2015, 529 plans savings plans had $234.7 billion in assets in 11.3 million accounts, and 529 prepaid plans – which allow families to lock in tuition costs at state institutions – had $23.9 billion in assets among 1.2 million accounts, according to Curley. The total assets of these 529 plans are equivalent to less than a quarter of the $1.2 trillion outstanding in student loan debt. Tennessee is terminating its 529 prepaid college savings plan due to weak earnings amid rising college costs. Washington state has closed its prepaid 529 plan to new investors for at least two years due to a more positive development: The state recently lowered tuition costs at its state university and colleges.

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