Updated on April 4, 2008.>
MANY PARENTS DREAM of sending their child to a tony private university. But with prices already staggeringly high the average private-school bill, including room and board, for one year of attendance is $32,307 according to 2007-08 figures released by the College Board it's a wish many parents simply can't afford. And it's only going to get more difficult: Should prices continue to climb at a 4% to 5% annual clip (not unreasonable, given historical averages), in 18 years four years of private higher education will come with a price tag of nearly $300,000>.
One unusual way to cover these costs is the Independent 529 Plan, through which parents (or grandparents, or whomever would like to contribute to an account) can pay today's tuition prices for future tuition bills at more than 270 private schools. In fact, participating schools even provide an annual discount> of at least 0.5% on today's tuition costs. And unlike other 529 plans, there are no fees for participation.
Before this plan launched in 2003, the only prepaid tuition plans available were for in-state beneficiaries attending public universities. Thirteen state programs are currently open to investors.
With its private-school focus and its nationwide scope, the Independent 529 plan is a unique breed of the prepaid plan. "It's another good option for parents to consider especially if they're pulling their kids toward private college," says Joe Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, an independent Web site that tracks the 529 industry. It's worth noting, however, that the plan covers tuition only which is just one slice of college costs. Other costs, such as room and board and book fees, aren't included.
Click here Right now, Princeton is the only Ivy League school included.
Intrigued? Parents who are fully confident that their little bundle of joy will attend a participating private school should be. Families, for example, that come from a long legacy of Notre Dame grads have every reason to be enthused. But everyone else needs to understand the drawbacks and they are substantial of this plan before participating.
Private School or Bust
The biggest potential snag, of course, is that there are no guarantees that the account beneficiary will attend a participating school. There is, after all, that little problem of acceptance, and sadly, participating in this plan will not give applicants any sort of competitive edge. Then there's the issue of whether the beneficiary will choose> to attend a participating school. (And, really, can anyone ever really predict the behavior of an 18-year-old?) Sure, with 274 schools participating, students have a wide selection to pick from but that still leaves out thousands of private and public schools. "It's very risky to be locked into those schools many of which are highly selective to begin with," says Kalman Chany, author of "Paying For College Without Going Broke." And students with specialized interests, such as, say, music or art, may find the list lacking, adds Chany.
Should you decide to pull money from the account for something other than tuition costs at a participating school, you'll receive an annual return that ranges from 2% to -2% (depending on the market's performance for each year you participated). If the withdrawal will be used for higher-education expenses say, for tuition at a nonparticipating school the earnings will be tax- and penalty-free. But nonqualified withdrawals will be taxed as ordinary income and hit with a 10% IRS penalty (as is the case with any 529 plan. Needless to say, had you invested the money on your own for several years, you most likely could have earned much better returns than 2% and you wouldn't be limited on school selection, notes Chany.
Another potential drawback to this plan is the negative effect it can have on financial aid. Granted, thanks to the Pension Protection Act, new legislation that came into effect in August 2006, prepaid plans receive the same treatment as 529 college-savings plans under the federal methodology, which is used for financial aid granted by the federal government. In other words, the plans are viewed as an asset of the account owner, which generally means a financial-aid officer can count a maximum of only 5.6% of the account balance when assessing your child's financial-aid eligibility. (Before August 17, 2006, withdrawals from a prepaid plan were considered a student's resource for federal financial aid purposes, and thus cut the student's financial aid need dollar for dollar.)
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So who should be considering the Independent 529 plan? Chany suggests that those with children who are just a few years shy of their college years may be the best candidates. For starters, by this age, parents should have a sense of the type of school their child may want to attend as well as their likelihood of acceptance. Also, with tuition bills looming, parents want to invest conservatively, which means that they probably won't be able to significantly beat tuition inflation (which has risen an average of 4.4% over the past 10 years for four-year private schools, according to the College Board) by investing on their own. The potential snag in this strategy is that the funds must be held for 36 months before use, which means that parents with children who are age 16 or 17 will most likely only be able to cover the tuition costs of junior and senior year.
Alternatively, once a child has decided which school he or she will attend, parents can ask the college itself if they can prepay their tuition bills on their own, says Chany. Many schools, including Dartmouth College, allow cash-rich parents to pay their bills upfront (outside of any prepaid plan), thus avoiding tuition hikes during their child's attendance.
Ultimately, choosing the best college-savings strategy comes down to the amount of flexibility you'd like. The Independent 529 Plan is a conservative bet with limited flexibility. Those looking for a little more control will be better off with a 529 college-savings plan, which at least allows participants to choose from a small group of investment options, can be adjusted on an annual basis and offers participants the opportunity to readjust their portfolios on an annual basis. With this type of 529 plan, there are no guaranteed investment returns but withdrawals can be used at any college and for any qualified college expense. (Many college-savings plans also offer some attractive state-tax benefits for in-state participants.) For more on why 529 college-savings plans are a wise choice for many families, see our story.