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Rising College Costs: Why 529 Plans Matter

College education, once deemed a golden ticket to upward mobility, has transformed into a costly pursuit. As rising college costs continue to do just that–rise exponentially–the average American family grapples with the prospect of sending their child to college. How did we get here, and how do we navigate these soaring costs? Enter the 529 account – a beacon of hope for the modern-day family.

What is a 529 Plan?

A 529 plan, or “Qualified Tuition Plan,” is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future college costs. The plans are named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code and are administered by state agencies and organizations.

Before embarking on this financial journey, it’s essential to understand what a 529 Plan is and what it can offer you. The 529 Plan isn’t just any regular savings account; it’s an investment vehicle with a clear focus—your child’s education. It offers potential tax benefits that can help your savings grow more efficiently.

Earnings in 529 plans are not subject to federal tax and generally not subject to state tax when used for the beneficiary’s qualified education expenses. This includes tuition for K-12, college, and post-graduate programs, books, supplies, and even room and board in certain cases.

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The Historical Rise of College Tuition Fees

Between the years 1980 and 2020, college tuition fees surged by over 200%, far outstripping inflation and wage growth. To put this into perspective, if the price of a loaf of bread had risen as fast as tuition fees, today’s bread would cost around $15!

Yet, wages have largely remained stagnant. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the wages of most Americans have barely budged in decades, especially when adjusted for inflation. This widening gap between college costs and family income is forcing many into the precarious embrace of student loans.

The Domino Effect of Rising College Costs

High tuition fees aren’t just numbers on a bill; they have real-life implications. Before even entering the workforce, many are saddled with colossal debt that can influence their career choices, pushing them towards jobs they might not have passion for but need for its financial stability. Young adults are:

  • Postponing homeownership: Massive financial burdens from student loans force many young adults to push back significant life events.
  • Delaying starting a family: Many choose to delay marriage and even postpone having children due to financial obligations.
  • Restraining from entrepreneurial ventures due to loan debts: The weight of debt restrains many from starting new ventures, depriving the economy of innovative startups.

This isn’t just about individual dreams deferred; it’s about the ripple effect on the economy and society at large.

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The Urgent Need for 529 Accounts

Amid this bleak landscape, the 529 account emerges as a saving grace. These accounts, designed specifically for education-related expenses, allow families to invest post-tax dollars, grow their investment tax-free, and withdraw the money tax-free when used for qualified education expenses.

Starting a 529 account early and contributing regularly can bridge the gap between the soaring costs of education and stagnant wages. It’s not just about college – these accounts can cover vocational schools, some K-12 expenses, and more.

How Does a 529 Plan Work in Estate Planning?

Case Study: Using a 529 Plan in Estate Planning for a High Earner

Background: Mr. Anderson, a successful tech entrepreneur, has amassed significant wealth over his lifetime. At 60, his estate is worth $25 million. He has three grandchildren and is keen on ensuring they have the best education without financial constraints. He’s also considering tax-efficient ways to reduce his estate’s value for estate tax purposes.

Solution: His financial advisor proposes leveraging the 529 plan’s unique feature: the ability to front-load five years’ worth of annual gift tax exclusions. This means, in 2023, Mr. Anderson can contribute $75,000 per beneficiary without triggering the gift tax, which is equivalent to five years of the standard $15,000 annual exclusion.

Implementation: Mr. Anderson opens three 529 plan accounts, one for each grandchild. He contributes $225,000 initially, spread evenly among the three accounts.


  • Immediate Estate Reduction: The $225,000 is immediately out of Mr. Anderson’s estate. Although he has the right to withdraw the principal amount, for estate tax purposes, it’s considered out of his taxable estate.
  • Tax-free Growth: The investments in the 529 plans grow tax-free, ensuring that the accumulated amount can fully cater to his grandchildren’s educational needs.
  • No Gift Tax Triggered: By leveraging the 5-year front-load feature, Mr. Anderson avoids triggering the gift tax.
  • Flexibility: Should one grandchild decide not to pursue higher education, Mr. Anderson can easily change the beneficiary to another family member.

Outcome: By the time his eldest grandchild is ready for college, the 529 account has grown significantly due to compounded tax-free growth. The grandchild can attend any institution without financial worries, and Mr. Anderson has efficiently transferred wealth out of his estate, reducing potential estate taxes.

Closing Thoughts

As the dynamics of the educational landscape change, our strategies to meet its financial challenges need to evolve as well. The rising cost of college education is not just a number; it’s a potential roadblock to dreams, aspirations, and generational progress. Yet, with tools like the 529 plan, families have a potent weapon in their arsenal. Beyond just the tangible tax advantages, it’s about creating a legacy of education, offering the next generation a springboard rather than an anchor. 

529 Plans are just a glimpse into the intricacies of estate planning. Book an appointment with us today and let’s ensure your wealth is structured optimally for generations to come.

The post Rising College Costs: Why 529 Plans Matter appeared first on Prosperity Financial Group | San Ramon, CA.

Elliot Kallen Wealth Manager | Registered Principal

For more than three decades, Elliot has provided customized wealth management solutions for entrepreneurs, business owners, retirees, and millennials.

Elliot and his wife, Tammy, are passionate about giving back to the community through their 501(c)(3) foundation, A Brighter Day. Through his partnership with A Brighter Day Charity, the Kallen family has helped local teens and young adults recognize and access resources to cope with the risks of stress and depression.

He enjoys spending his free time with his family. Some of his hobbies include cooking, wine, golf, travel, and studying history.

He lives in Lafayette, California with his wife, step-daughter, and grandson.

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