“Especially if there’s a large market drop on a particular day, that investor could lock in losses that may be hard to recoup,” Hume says.
Today, many plans mimic target-date retirement funds, which reduce risk gradually. Even plans that still sell one portfolio of investments to buy another tend to do so more often to reduce the possibility of locking in big losses and give investors a smoother ride, she says.
California’s decision to move its ScholarShare College Savings plan to a progressive glide path helped earn it a gold rating this year, up from last year’s silver. Three other plans – Bright Start College Savings in Illinois, Invest529 in Virginia and my529 in Utah – also earned top marks for their glide paths, low fees and best-in-class investment options.
• MOST PLANS CONTINUE TO SLASH FEES
The investment industry has been slashing costs and eliminating commissions at a “dizzying” pace, so plans that haven’t done so have started to look unattractive, Hume says.
Morningstar downgraded Nevada’s The Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, a top-rated plan since 2012, from gold to silver status for this reason. Its fees remain below average but are no longer among the cheapest, Hume says.
Cost was also the reason that four other plans received negative ratings. Those plans include North Dakota’s College SAVE Plan, New Jersey’s Franklin Templeton 529 College Savings, Arkansas’s GIFT College Investing Plan and Nebraska’s TD Ameritrade 529 College Savings Plan.
The fifth plan to flunk out was Nevada’s USAA College Savings Plan. Morningstar downgraded the plan after Victory Capital Holdings bought USAA’s asset management business and added its own managers to all the underlying equity funds. The change happened before Nevada state officials had time to vet the changes, Hume says. Strong state oversight is a key factor in Morningstar’s rating system because it deters investment firms from making money at the expense of investors.
• WHAT YOU SHOULD DO NOW
You generally can change 529 providers once every 12 months without triggering IRS taxes and penalties. But you’ll want to consider state tax treatment, as well.
Most states offer residents a tax break for 529 contributions and may require you to pay that back if you transfer the account to another state’s plan. If you get a tax break and your plan isn’t on Morningstar’s naughty list, it may make sense to stay put depending on the size of that break, the state’s policies on paying it back if you move and the plan’s quality. Check the plan’s site for details.
If your state plan did get a negative rating, you have alternatives. Many states offer more than one plan, and Nebraska, New Jersey and Nevada all have better-rated options. Also, Arkansas is one of the seven states that give a tax break for investing in any state’s plan, not just its own. (Arizona, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania are other “tax parity” states.) Plus, your state could clean up its act. Florida 529 Savings Plan jumped from negative to bronze this year after revamping its plan.
Not all states offer tax breaks, of course. Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming don’t have state income taxes, while California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey and North Carolina don’t offer tax deductions or credits for 529 contributions.
If your state doesn’t reward you for staying or punish you for straying, there’s little downside to moving your money to a better plan.