Updated on 08.05.15

The Best 529 Plans in America

Saundra Latham
virginia students can take advantage of one of the nation's best 529 plans

You don’t have to live or attend school in Virginia to take advantage of one of the nation’s best 529 college savings plans. Photo: University of Virginia via Facebook

Saving for college is overwhelming for even the most meticulous financial planners, but the best 529 plans can help you reach your goals. Simply put, a 529 plan is a special account that lets you save up for your child’s college costs and other educational expenses. You act as custodian of the account, keeping complete control, while your child — or anyone else you designate — is the beneficiary.

While 529s have both pros and cons, experts still recommend them for most families. The Treasury Department found in 2009 that 529s amounted to nearly 40% more in college savings for the wealthiest families, and a still-sizeable 22% bump for families of more modest means.

To give you a more concrete idea of how much a 529 plan could help if you were very disciplined, let’s say you want to cover $215,000 in college costs for your lucky newborn. According to this SavingforCollege.com calculator, contributing $465 a month to a 529 plan will get you there, assuming a yearly 4% increase in college costs and a reasonable 6% annual return.

When it’s all said and done, you’ll have made more than $117,000 in contributions, but you’ll also have earned nearly $98,000 with that money.

If those kind of numbers sound appealing, keep reading. We’ll cover the basic pros and cons of 529 plans and discuss where to find the best 529 plan for you.

529 Plans: Pros and Cons

Using a 529 plan has several advantages. Here are three of the biggest:

Tax benefits

While you fund a 529 plan with after-tax dollars (unlike, say, pre-tax 401(k) contributions), your earnings won’t be subject to federal income tax when you withdraw them later — much like a Roth IRA. Many states also offer tax deductions or credits at the state level, too, though these vary by plan.

Flexibility

There aren’t a lot of restrictions on who can contribute to a 529 plan. You can live in any state and make any amount of money — there are no residency or income requirements. And annual contribution limits tend to be high enough that most of us would never have to worry about hitting them.

You can switch 529s up to once a year by rolling over the balance without paying any sort of penalty, and you can also change the plan beneficiary if you need to. You can also contribute to a 529 on anyone’s behalf — not just your child’s.

Minimal impact on financial aid

When parents contribute to a 529 on their child’s behalf, the account is classified as a parental asset for financial aid purposes, just like most other kinds of savings. That won’t have as much of a negative impact on other financial aid as parental income or the student’s own assets.

Of course, there are also some potential downsides to 529 plans, too:

Early-withdrawal penalties

Much like some IRAs, you’ll owe income tax and a steep 10% early-withdrawal penalty on earnings if you try to tap your 529 early. (If you aren’t a disciplined saver, this could be a pro — a 529 plan should never function as a general savings account and you should dip in early only as a last resort.)

Limited investment choices

While many parents feel simplicity is an advantage of 529s, perhaps you’re a more seasoned investor who likes to pick and choose individual stocks. In that case, you might find your portfolio choices limiting, or in the case of prepaid 529 plans, nonexistent. The number of times you can change investment options and allocations may also be very low.

One alternative open to more sophisticated investors is to use a Roth IRA, which offers many more investment choices, including individual stocks or even options. Roth IRA contributions and earnings can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free after five years if used for qualified educational purposes. However, Roth IRAs carry stricter income and contribution limits, and this approach takes discipline — you shouldn’t be raiding your retirement savings to pay for college.

No guarantee of returns

Unless you choose a prepaid 529 plan (more on these later), you are taking on risk just like any other investor. While some plans allow you to dial down the risk as your child gets closer to college age, there are still no guarantees.

Where Should I Open a 529 Plan?

Most states offer their own 529 plans with tax breaks meant to keep your money in your own state. However, that doesn’t preclude you from using another state’s plan, especially if there is little or no tax incentive offered in your own state.

Aside from tax benefits, another thing you’ll want to keep an eye on is fees. Many of the best 529 plans, particularly state-sponsored ones, keep fees reasonable. However, fees of up to almost 3% of your plan’s assets aren’t unheard of. Paying fees that high may mean any tax benefits are cancelled out.

Here’s a list of which states offer tax benefits for residents who invest in their 529s, culled from investment research firm Morningstar:

State Tax deduction
(Single/Joint)
Tax benefits for
out-of-state plans?
Alabama up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Arizona up to $2,000/$4,000 Yes
Arkansas up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Colorado up to $350,000/$350,000 No
Connecticut up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Georgia up to $2,000/$2,000 No
Idaho up to $4,000/$8,000 No
Illinois up to $10,000/$20,000 No
Iowa up to $3,098/$6,196 No
Kansas up to $3,000/$6,000 Yes
Louisiana up to $2,400/$4,800 No
Maine up to $250/$250 Yes
Maryland up to $2,500/$2,500 No
Michigan up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Mississippi up to $10,000/$20,000 No
Missouri up to $8,000/$16,000 Yes
Montana up to $3,000/$6,000 Yes
Nebraska up to $10,000/$10,000 No
New York up to $5,000/$10,000 No
North Dakota up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Ohio up to $2,000/$2,000 No
Oklahoma up to $10,000/$20,000 No
Oregon up to $2,225/$4,530 No
Pennsylvania up to $14,000/$28,000 Yes
Rhode Island up to $500/$1,000 No
South Carolina up to $318,000/$318,000 No
Utah up to $1,900/$3,800 No
Vermont up to $250/$5,000 No
Virginia up to $4,000/$4,000 No
Washington, D.C. up to $4,000/$8,000 No
West Virginia up to $265,620/$265,620 No
Wisconsin up to $3,050/$6,100 No

The following states offer 529 plans with no tax breaks (some because there is no state income tax): Alaska, California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. Washington state and Wyoming do not offer 529s.

What if my state’s 529 doesn’t offer tax breaks, or my state doesn’t have a 529?

Remember, you can shop around regardless of your state’s 529 benefits, or lack thereof. Some states, reflected in the table above, even offer tax benefits regardless of whether you choose an in-state plan or go with another state’s.

If you decide not to go with your own state’s plan and need a bit of help choosing the best 529 for you, you’ll find five of the best 529 plans in the nation below. All earn high marks from sources including Kiplinger, Morningstar, and Savingforcollege.com. None of these plans have residency requirements for plan custodians or beneficiaries, so you can live anywhere and still take advantage:

Maryland College Investment Program

Maryland’s College Investment Program is one of Morningstar’s four gold-rated plans. Administered by T. Rowe Price, this plan has a range of quality funds, according to Kiplinger. It’s also a particularly good pick for those who want to be a little more aggressive with a heavier investment in stocks. You’ll have one age-based and seven static plan options.

Nevada Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan

This Nevada plan is another one of Morningstar’s four gold-rated options. It earns particular raves for keeping costs low and utilizing a broad range of strong Vanguard index funds. You’ll have three age-based and 19 static plan options.

New York 529 College Savings Program: Direct Plan

New York’s 529 plan offers an appealing blend of low fees and age-based portfolios that let you make aggressive, moderate, or conservative investments based on your child’s age, according to Kiplinger. It’s also the third-best plan on SavingforCollege.com’s 10-year investment performance list. You’ll have three age-based and 13 static plan options.

Utah Educational Savings Plan

Utah’s 529 plan, also known as USEP, wins raves from Kiplinger as an excellent pick for seasoned investors because it is more customizable than many other options. It has the second-best 10-year investment performance of any state’s plan, according to an analysis by Savingforcollege.com. You’ll have five age-based and nine static plan options, according to Morningstar.

Virginia CollegeAmerica

A strong all-around performer, the Virginia CollegeAmerica plan gets high marks from SavingforCollege.com as a particularly good pick for low fees and strong investment performance. Its best feature, however, is that it is among your least-expensive picks for an actively managed plan, according to Morningstar. This plan is also the biggest in the U.S. with $47 billion in assets. You’ll have one age-based and a whopping 31 static plan options.

Should I buy a 529 direct from a state or through a financial advisor?

Just as you can buy a 529 directly through a state, financial advisors also offer these plans, such as the Virginia CollegeAmerica 529 profiled above. Going through an expert certainly has a lot of appeal if you want additional guidance on what to choose, or want to use a more aggressive approach to managing your 529. However, you’ll typically pay heftier fees for advisor-managed accounts.

If you have a long-standing relationship with a particular financial advisor or like to keep all of your investment accounts at one brokerage for simplicity’s sake, it might make sense to open a 529 with them. Many state plans are managed by big-name firms, including the following:

  • Ascensus: Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Dakota
  • Fidelity: Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire
  • Merrill Lynch: Maine
  • TIAA-CREF: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin
  • T. Rowe Price: Alaska, Maryland
  • Vanguard: Iowa

Should I Consider a Prepaid 529?

There are two main types of 529 plans: Investment plans and prepaid tuition plans. Investment plans, otherwise known as college savings plans, are far more common and are the kind of 529 we’ve discussed thus far: You simply make after-tax contributions to an investment account, then withdraw these contributions and their earnings tax-free for qualified educational expenses when the time comes.

With a prepaid plan, you’re actually buying a portion of school tuition in advance, locking in current prices. This basically works as a hedge against any future tuition increases. Since skyrocketing college costs show little sign of slowing down, it seems like an attractive option, especially if you want an especially conservative way to put away money for an older child who only has a few years until college.

Unfortunately, prepaid plans are a bit harder to come by these days. In 2014, there were only 11 open to new enrollees, largely because tuition spikes at state schools have made the plans harder to fund.

There are a couple other major cons of these plans:

  • First, they’re usually only a good pick for in-state public schools. (If your child decides not to go to an in-state school, you can still get your money out of the prepaid 529; however, it won’t go nearly as far. Exactly how far will depend on the plan’s rules, but the interest you earn will likely be minimal compared to investment plans.)
  • Second, prepaid plans sometimes have stricter rules about qualified expenses than investment 529s. Some may cover only tuition and fees, and not room, board, books, or other related costs.

Because of these big limitations, investment plans are a better pick for the majority of investors. However, if you’re still intrigued by the idea of a prepaid plan, be sure to check out our related post on the Massachusetts U.Plan and several other popular prepaid options. It includes the unique Private College 529 Plan, which guarantees tuition at nearly 300 private schools across the country.

The Best 529 Plan is One You’ll Stick With

Regardless of where you put your money, the best 529 plan is one you’ll contribute to regularly and keep your hands off of until your child is off to college. Any tax benefits you receive are a nice bonus.

If you want to learn more about 529 plans and saving for college, check out some of Google-X’s previous articles: Six Common Myths About 529 College Savings PlansChoosing a 529 Plan, Saving for College With More Than One Kid, or How to Save for Your Child’s College Education.

And if your 529 savings won’t foot the entire bill, take a look at the Best Student Loans in 2015, a comprehensive primer on all kinds of federal and private student loans.