Due to the pandemic, colleges across the United States are starting to rethink their approach to how to provide an education. In response, many families are wondering whether paying for a college education is worthwhile right now.
Recent statistics bear out this trend. In October, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that undergraduate enrollment is down 4%. Experts attribute the decrease to concerns about contracting COVID-19, a dislike of online learning, and issues with families not being able to afford tuition. Some students are opting to take a gap year or to postpone college.
While reconsidering your college plans may be an option for some, financial planners advise families to continue saving—at least in some form—for their children’s college education. The following is some information and advice on how to manage your 529 college savings plan as the educational system navigates COVID-19.
Community College An Option
One popular option for students who don’t want to virtually attend a pricey university is to enroll in community college, which is generally a less expensive choice. Some financial advisors recommend that parents pay the lower tuition for community college out-of-pocket rather than draw on their student’s 529 plan, a popular education savings plan that allows families to invest money that has already been taxed into several investment options. Your earnings grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified expenses are not taxed.
This approach offers several benefits. Parents can continue contributing to their child’s 529 account and increase its long-term growth potential. In addition, they will not be withdrawing money from their student’s college savings account and taking a loss during an economic downturn. Students can also take out separate loans for community college and use the 529 proceeds later to repay up to $10,000 of those loans (principal and interest), a one-time option now available under the recently passed SECURE Act. As an added bonus, up to $10,000 in 529 plan distributions can be put toward the educational debt of each of the beneficiary’s siblings, including stepsisters and stepbrothers.
Continue to Contribute
The market ups and downs over the last year may set off warning alarms for your 529 college savings plan. Your account balance may drop, which may make the plan seem less valuable. The statistics back this up. According to data from the College Savings Plans Network, the average account reached a high of $26,054 in 2019, but now it is down to an average of $25,657.
Even with so much uncertainty, advisors recommend that families continue contributing to their 529 college savings plans as much as they can. Recent research finds that many are doing just that—total investments in 529 plans have risen to nearly $374 billion, a record. Investors value the savings plans’ tax-free deductions when the funds are used for qualified educational expenses such as tuition and books.
“When it comes to 529 college savings, staying the course is an essential component of a successful long-term savings strategy,” stated Michael Frerichs, the chairman of the College Savings Plans Network, in a recent interview with CNBC.
Other Ways to Use the Money
COVID relief legislation that was passed earlier this year allowed families who had paid for tuition from their 529 plans—before classes were moved online due to the pandemic—to receive refunds from the colleges. As long as the money was deposited back into the 529 plan within 60 days, the withdrawal was not taxed.
While families have the option to leave the money untouched, there are other ways they could use it because the law allows for 529 funds to be used to pay for a variety of qualified educational expenses. Up to $10,000 per year can be spent on private school tuition for each younger child per year (private, public, or religious education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade), and in many states that amount can be applied to reduce the taxable income of the parent or grandparent who started the fund.
The money also can be used to pay for apprenticeship programs, vocational school, and other post-secondary institutions that participate in the U.S. Department of Education student aid program. Qualified expenses also include computer software, textbooks, and supplies.
The Long-Term Outlook
For families with younger children, now may be a good time to think about what higher education will look like in a decade. Some experts predict that post-COVID, the cost of a college education will become even more expensive. In order to compensate, you can change the asset allocation of your 529 plan portfolio, making it more aggressive or conservative based on your feelings about the market.
Parents may want to explore other savings options, as well, so that they can work around the restrictions on the 529 plan. Other good investment choices include U.S. Treasury bonds, one of the safest—and slowest—investments, or stocks, which will be more volatile but could provide a much larger payoff. Parents also could consider a Roth IRA savings account, which offers the tax savings of a 529 account without the restrictions.