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(Related: Top 10 Colleges With Best Financial Aid Packages: Princeton Review)

Savingforcollege.com’s just-released rankings for 529 plans illustrate a key difference between broker-sold and RIA-sold plans.

Although both plans charge higher expense ratios and other fees than plans sold directly to consumers, RIA-sold plans tend to be less expensive than broker-sold plans even though the investment choices are often identical.

Take for example, the Bright Directions Advisor-Guided 529 College Savings Program. Class F shares sold through RIAs have a total asset-based expense ratio between 0.205%  and 1.36%, depending on the funds chosen, and no front-end or back-end sales load.

With the exception of two short-term bond portfolios and a government and agency bond portfolio, Class A shares sold through brokers charges a sales load of 3.5% for accounts with less than $250,000 in assets (and a lower load at higher asset levels), a 0.25% annual trail, a 3% dealer commission and a total asset-expense ratio of 0.32% to 1.61%.

Although there’s no sales charge for Class C or Class E shares, Class C shares charge a 0.50% commission and 0.50% annual trail and Class E shares charge a 0.25% annual trail. Class C assets also have a higher maximum expense ratio than Class A or E shares, of 1.86%.

Other 529 plans sold through RIAs are also less expensive than broker-sold plans, including Virginia’s College America plan, Class 529-F, Nebraska’s TD Ameritrade 529 College Savings Plan and South Carolina’s Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan (Class I).

If the investment choices in both types of plans are identical, the cheaper plan will usually perform better. But in all cases, whether sold through RIAs, brokers or directly to consumers, 529 plan savings grow tax-free and distributions are also tax-free so long as they’re used for qualified educational expenses. Those expenses now include educational costs for private school education, grades K-12, in addition to college costs, as a result of the latest tax cut legislation.

Following are the leading RIA-sold 529 plans, which placed in the top 10 for three- and five-year performance — time periods that Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com, recommends.

The rankings are composites based on the average performance score in seven allocation categories: 100%, 80%, 60%, 40% and 20% equities with the remaining allocation in bonds; 100% bonds and 100% short-term. The portfolios include age-based options with different risk levels — conservative, moderate and aggressive — target-date funds (considered static options) and individual funds or ETFs. Most have funds and/or ETFs from multiple fund companies especially for the individual funds category; a few, like New York State’s plan, include funds from just a couple of firms.

Since only plans that ranked in the top 10 during two different time periods are included in our list, some plans that earned a high rating in only one of those periods are not. In the gallery above, the plans are presented in order of their 3-year rankings, starting with the lower rankings first.

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