Following a decade of increasing student debt and rising college tuition, only one third of Americans (36%) can correctly recognize a 529 plan as an education savings tool, according to a recent study conducted by Morning Consult with financial services firm Edward Jones. Revealed in the firm’s 10th annual 529 Awareness Survey, this figure represents a slight drop from the inaugural survey in 2012* when 37% of Americans demonstrated the same understanding.
From 2012 to 2021, student loan debt grew 70% to $1.7 billion, according to the Federal Reserve’s estimates. During the same period, the average cost of attending a private college grew 17% to $37,650.1 Despite the increase in these figures, surprisingly the survey did not indicate an uptick in the use of the tax-advantaged 529 savings plans, with only one-fifth of parents in the U.S. (20%) reporting they have saved or are planning to save for theirs or their children’s education using a 529 plan.
In lieu of saving for education with 529 plans, American parents have saved or are planning to save for education costs with a mix of personal savings strategies and financial aid options, with 40% utilizing a personal savings account, 23% relying on scholarships, and 22% employing federal or state financial aid in their education savings strategies.
“With the cost of college continuing to rise, having the potential growth and tax benefits of a 529 make these plans crucial – and complementary – to the additional strategies Americans are using to save for education,” said Steve Rueschhoff, principal at Edward Jones. “While there are a lot of unknowns for parents of college-bound students, like the potential for scholarships, the permanence of hybrid online/in-person education, and any policies offering student debt forgiveness, it’s prudent to save for education to help create certainty and confidence.”
Barriers Keep Savers on the Sidelines
As COVID-19 uprooted traditional education to a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning for the majority of the country, 80% of Americans saving for an in-person, four-year college or university cited concerns that the quality of education may suffer if universities continue with this increased hybrid model. Other barriers respondents cited keeping them from contributing to 529 plans included paying off their own student loans (15%), the fear of being penalized on unused funds if a child doesn’t go to college (14%), and the feeling that they don’t make enough money to open a 529 account (12%).
Despite these obstacles, saving for education remains a top three financial priority for many Americans. Among parents, survey respondents ranked saving for retirement (49%) as the top life event they’re saving for followed by saving emergency cash (44%) and saving for their child’s education (30%).
Room for Financial Education in Education Savings
With 67% of Americans admitting that they were not aware of the features and potential tax benefits of 529 plans and 65% unaware of their possible uses beyond higher education, there is an opportunity to fill the education gap with the help of a trusted financial advisor.
Of respondents who do not feel that they are saving enough for future education expenses, one quarter (24%) said they would feel better if a financial advisor could help guide their financial decisions.
“Despite the lack of awareness and understanding of these tools, we feel encouraged that Americans are receptive and seeking the guidance of a financial advisor who can explain the optimal benefits, considerations and many applications of 529 plans,” added Rueschhoff. “In the next 10 years, we are optimistic that awareness of 529s will increase, and with that understanding, saving for education will no longer feel like an out-of-reach financial goal for many Americans.”
Edward Jones’ Commitment to Education
As Edward Jones financial advisors continue to discuss evolving financial priorities with clients, including saving for education, the firm recently ranked number 1 in the U.S. in 529 plan funding for 2020.2 In the spirit of raising awareness for 529 plans and college savings techniques, Edward Jones branches across the country are recognizing May 29 as “Save for Education Day,” a firm-wide holiday derived from the name of the popular college savings tool.
As part of its ongoing effort to promote financial literacy, the Edward Jones Financial Fitness program empowers high school students, clients, and associates to achieve financial resilience by learning about 529 plans and the smart ways to plan and pay for college. Investing in Your Future resources are free and can be found online at www.edwardjones.com/financialfitness
This survey was conducted by global data intelligence company Morning Consult among a national sample of 2,220 adults from 18 to 65+.
*This year’s awareness level is “down from the firm’s 2012 study,” conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, “where awareness stood at 37%.”
About Edward Jones
Edward Jones, a Fortune 500 firm, provides financial services for individual investors in the United States and, through its affiliate, in Canada. Every aspect of the firm’s business, from the types of investment options offered to the location of branch offices, is designed to cater to individual investors in the communities in which they live and work. The firm has nearly 19,000 financial advisors who care for more than 7 million clients with more than $1.6 trillion assets under care. Visit www.edwardjones.com or the recruiting website at www.careers.edwardjones.com. Member SIPC.
Tax issues for 529 plans can be complex. Some states and states’ 529 plans may also recognize certain elementary and secondary tuition expenses as a qualified expense. Before using funds for elementary and/or secondary tuition expenses, please consult with the plan sponsor and/or a qualified tax advisor to avoid incurring potential state tax consequences and/or penalties. Edward Jones, its financial advisors and employees cannot provide tax or legal advice. Investments in 529 plans will fluctuate with changes in market conditions and may be worth more or less than the original investment when redeemed.