Employee education programs can lead to positive retirement investment decisions, according to a roundup of first-quarter 401(k) savings rates from Fidelity Investments. 

The average 401(k) balance rose to $74,900 at the end of the first quarter, a record high since Fidelity began keeping records in 1998. The new balance represents an increase of almost 12% from a year ago, and a 58% jump from the same period in 2009.

Much of the progress came down to four key savings behaviors, prompted by Fidelity’s education programs from March 2009 through September 2010. During that period, which paralleled the financial market downturn and nascent recovery, Fidelity Investments noticed that more 401(k) plan participants wanted to educate themselves and be more engaged in the retirement savings process, a Fidelity spokesman said in a phone interview. The Boston-based company noted that 92% of its plan sponsors adopted the engagement programs.

Fifty-four percent of plans using Fidelity’s engagement programs increased enrollment rates, compared with 27% of those that had not adopted them. Also, 12% of participants in plans that used Fidelity’s enrollment follow-up communications increased their deferral rates, which eclipsed the 2% of participants who did not.

Plan participants also seemed to make smarter asset allocation decisions. Fidelity reported that 85% of plan sponsors that educated participants about asset allocation made improvements for all age groups. That was much higher than the 51% of plans that did not provide the education.

More than half, 51%, of plan sponsors that contacted departing employees with distribution options, such as staying in the plan or rolling the funds over to an individual retirement account, reduced the number of employees who cashed out the funds. Between March 2009 to September 2010, the average cash-out rate decreased by two percentage points among plans that communicated about these options, while the rate for plans that did not increased by five percentage points.