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How Do I Choose a 529?

A three-step solution for selecting the best college savings plan.

This is an updated version of an article that originally published on Nov. 22, 2019.

Choosing a 529 plan can seem like a complicated task. Plans are administered at the state level, so they vary by state in terms of asset allocation, investment quality, and fees. Another consideration is whether or not your state offers an income tax benefit for contributing. Lastly, many states allow out-of-state residents to invest in their plans, which opens a lot more options for college savers. And while having more choices is good, evaluating all those options can prove time-consuming and difficult.

Morningstar's research, tools, and insights can help you narrow your search down in three easy steps.

Step 1: Evaluate your state tax benefit. State income tax benefits are a big consideration when determining whether you should stay in-state or venture out-of-state to find a 529 plan.

We might rate your state's 529 plan(s) poorly, but if your contributions (money put into the account) earn a state tax break that you would forego by venturing out-of-state, in most cases you will benefit from staying. Here's a framework for thinking it through:

We group states into five categories. The first two allow state tax breaks on your 529 contributions. The remaining three provide no tax incentive for staying in-state.

  1. Tax Parity: You get state income tax benefits for contributing to any state's 529 plan.
  2. Tax Credit: A percentage of your 529 contribution that directly reduces your state income tax bill. (If you get a 10% credit for up to $2,000 in state income taxes, you slash $200 from your bill by contributing at least $2,000.) Unlike a deduction that lowers the amount of income subject to tax, a credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax bill.
  3. Tax Deduction: You can subtract part or all of your 529 contribution from your income subject to state income taxes. (In other words, a $5,000 deduction on $100,000 in taxable income leaves $95,000 of your income subject to state income taxes.)
  4. No Benefit: Your state doesn't provide a state tax benefit for contributions to any 529 plan.
  5. No Income Tax: You live in a state with no state income taxes.

If you live in a state that offers a state income tax benefit, either a deduction or a credit, our research makes a strong argument to stay in-state. Tax breaks offset all or most of a cheap in-state plan's fee, barring one exception.

If your state falls into the latter three categories described above--tax parity, no tax benefit, and no income tax--there's no benefit to staying in state. College savers in these states can search for the best plan, whether in-state or out-of-state.

Step 2: Determine if you want an age-based or static portfolio. Once you decide whether or not to stay in-state, it's time to make some investment decisions. Decide which of the two broad 529 investment options you prefer: age-based or static portfolios.

Age-based portfolios, the most popular choice among investors, automatically shift from risky, higher-earning securities (stocks) to less-risky investments (bonds) as your child nears college. This helps protect your money from being wiped out in a market downturn shortly before you'll need to pay tuition bills. If you choose an age-based portfolio, understand how they vary across plans.

You'll also want to choose the flavor of age-based plan you want. With some, you can fine-tune the stock and bond exposure by choosing an aggressive (more equity) or conservative (less equity) track. Others let you choose between an active or passive portfolio.

Static portfolios let you choose what to invest in. The holdings stay the same over time unless you adjust them, letting you cook your own college-savings meal with ingredients from a preset investment menu. This includes stock funds, bond funds, and balanced funds, which contain a set proportion of stocks and bonds.

Static portfolios are best-suited for those who want to deviate from an age-based portfolio and have the time and knowledge to tinker with the portfolio over time.

Step 3: Use Morningstar's research to compare plans. Morningstar rates 529 plans to help you choose the best option whether you're evaluating plans across states or within one state.

We award plans that we like with Morningstar Analyst Ratings of Bronze, Silver, or Gold, with Gold-rated plans having our highest conviction. Here are some of the most important considerations when evaluating 529s:

  • Glide Path: How an age-based plan shifts to less-risky investments as your child nears college. We like plans with smooth transitions from stocks to bonds and cash as opposed to dramatic shifts.
  • Underlying Holdings: A high percentage of funds earning Morningstar Medalist ratings implies higher quality.
  • State Oversight and Plan Management Quality: We want to see experienced managers overseeing the asset-allocation and investment-selection processes.
  • Fees: We evaluate a plan's all-in expenses, which means that we look not only at administrative fees and plan management fees, but we also evaluate the costs of the underlying investments

Some other features you might want to consider are whether a plan offers aggressive, moderate, and conservative age-based portfolio tracks, and whether it is available through direct-sold as well as advisor-sold channels.

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