It's not all bad news.
The average investor in a college savings plan made just about 4% last year, even though the total U.S. stock market rose by almost 14%, a new study from Morningstar found.
But the lead author of the report, Leo Acheson, says that performance may not be quite as depressing as it sounds, for these six reasons:
- It still beats tuition: Although 4% severely lags the Standard & Poor’s 500, it beat tuition inflation, which rose by 3.7% in 2014, according to the College Board.
- Older students should earn less: A disproportionately large percentage of all 529 assets are funds that have been saved over time for students who are now at or nearing college age. Funds for those students should be—and typically are—invested very conservatively. Savings plans designed for current college students, for example, are typically almost entirely in safe bonds, which means they are earning less than 2% a year right now, Acheson notes.
- Diversification setbacks should be short-term: Younger and more aggressive investors whose portfolios were globally diversified also earned less than the Standard & Poor’s 500 in 2014 because of trouble in international markets. Overall, emerging markets funds lost about 5% in 2014, for example. But, in theory, at least, globally diversified portfolios should do better over the long run.
- Savers get federal tax benefits: When parents take the money out of 529 accounts to pay college bills, they don’t have to pay taxes on the gains, which boosts their effective return. Morningstar estimated that a family in the 25% to 35% tax bracket that saved $2,400 annually over the last five years would have netted $15,275 after taxes in a typical mutual fund, but $15,628 after taxes from the same investment in a sheltered 529 account.
- Some also get state tax benefits: About half of Americans live in one of the 34 states that give deductions or credits on state tax returns for contributions to 529 plans. Those initial tax breaks reduce families’ state tax bills by an average of 8.7% of the contribution, according to Morningstar. (See if you live in a state with a 529 tax break.)
- Fees are shrinking: One of the biggest criticisms of 529 plans has been the high fees that eat away at parents’ investment returns. Morningstar found that, for example, large value index funds offered in 529 plans charge expense ratios of .78% of assets, while the equivalent mutual fund outside of 529 plans charges just .56%. But 40 plans cut their fees in 2014, bringing the average gap between mutual funds and similar 529 plans down by more than half, Acheson found. In addition, the best plans, recommended by MONEY and by Morningstar, have fees as low as .08%.
The bottom line of all of these developments, Acheson says, is that for families in moderate to high tax brackets, and those who live in a state with a 529 tax break, “it makes sense to save for college in a 529 plan…especially one with low fees.”