Participation in 529 college savings plans has leveled off after years of growth, according to a Fidelity survey. Perhaps not coincidentally, the study found that most advisors do not "proactively suggest the 529 plan" to parents with youngsters.
Matt Golden, vice president of college planning at Fidelity, said 529 accounts often start with small amounts so they might not be the first topic planners discuss with clients. "However," he added, "advisors who want to manage a client's assets should be having a conversation about being prepared for college costs, mentioning 529 plans. Substantial amounts can go into these accounts, over time. Advisors who raise this issue can build trust with clients and attract more of their business. Building trust also can lead to more referrals."
According to Fidelity's Sixth Annual College Savings Indicator survey of families with children they intend to send to college, the portion of respondents investing in 529 plans increased from 18% in 2008 to 28% in 2011, but that percentage held steady in 2012. Of the respondents who work with financial advisors, 53% invest in dedicated college savings accounts such as 529 plans, versus 28% of other families. In only 26% of those cases did the advisor suggest the 529 plan. As Fidelity puts it, "parents continue to drive the discussion."
Regardless of who raised the subject, parents who try 529 plans apparently like them. In 2012, 50% of parents with 529 plains said they make regularly scheduled contributions through direct deposit from their bank or brokerage account, up from 35% of parents in 2011. In this year's survey, 34% of parents said that they had increased their regular contributions since they opened their 529 account, compared to only 25% of parents who said this in 2011.
"Our survey indicates that advisors should advance the conversation about college planning," Golden said. "Beyond encouraging savings, they can help to make parents aware of the total cost of college and explain how the financial aid process works." In the Fidelity survey, parents said they plan to pay for 57% of their children's college costs, on average, yet the typical family is currently on track to cover only 30% of that goal. Therefore, many families need well-informed advice on college funding, and planners who provide productive guidance are likely to enjoy long-term benefits.