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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

The Case for Helping Low-Income Families Save for College

Published:  June 4, 2009

Note: This post was originally published on Higher Ed Watch, New America's commentary on the world of higher education, run by the Education Policy Program.

Recently, 529 college savings plans have come under criticism. Like many stakeholders in the economy, 529 plan owners have not been isolated from financial pain, and many critics have used recent market volatility and plan underperformance to call for reform. Others, however, have gone further and called for policymakers to abandon 529s in particular, and savings overall, as a plausible conduit to help families afford college. As New America's recently launched College Savings Initiative is charged with examining and improving 529 plans, we feel that it is important to respond to some of these arguments.

To their credit, many critics of these plans share our general goal -- to increase postsecondary access and affordability for low- and middle-income students. We simply differ over whether or not 529 plans provide a promising tool for helping students attend and complete college who could not otherwise afford to go.

Consider this: A recent Gallup survey from Sallie Mae indicates that, while 62% of parents are saving for college, only 32% of those making less than $35,000 have put any money aside for this purpose. Furthermore, half of those low-income families are saving even less (or in some cases not at all) in light of the recession. This is, quite obviously, cause for concern. But is encouraging savings -- and college savings plans as vehicles to do so -- really the answer? We believe so.

The general anti-529 argument, which has made the rounds in recent months, goes something like this: College prices have gone through the roof, to the point where many low- and middle-class families are being priced out altogether. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many families have lost wealth in the market, including in 529 plans, which have a shorter time frame to recoup. As a result, we should scrap the savings model since it's overly risky. This wouldn't be a problem because, after all, low- and middle-income families don't have enough money to save in the first place and don't reap as much tax benefit from 529s. A better approach would be to simply increase spending on Pell Grants or other forms of federal aid, and at the same time, significantly increase subsidies for state universities to make college more affordable, and bolster attempts to control the price.

Unfortunately, this approach amounts to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We recognize that, for most families, 529s will never hold enough to fund an entire education. Instead we see them as a significant part of a balanced financial plan - including grants, loans, scholarships, work study and other forms of aid. In this vein, we should certainly use all policy levers necessary - including increased student aid funding - to make college more affordable and accessible. It is the potential of the college savings plan, however, to incorporate progressive features, which we believe could have broad effects, both financial and behavioral.

College savings, at the very least, replace college debt that comes with interest to pay. This is critical because the less student loan debt families incur, the more money they have at their disposal - for a home, a retirement, or for emergency short-term savings.

Some have questioned whether 529s can even be considered "assets" like a house or a retirement fund, since the 529 is a means to an end, and homeownership/retirement is an end in itself. To that, we would point to the fact that many families have lost the home equity that was supposed to be "permanent" or, in some cases, the homes themselves. Yet we don't find it likely that many would argue that homeownership has become a bad idea. To be sure, responsible homeownership, as well as a retirement fund and, yes, an education, all have important roles to play in building wealth over the life course. And unlike a home, you can't foreclose on a college degree.

Still, one might ask: Why the emphasis on savings and assets, broadly? In other words, should policymakers instead focus on increasing earnings (of which increased savings will be a natural byproduct)? To that, there are several arguments.

First, two decades of research from the asset building field suggest that asset ownership is a useful tool in generating income for the populations we're discussing. Second, there is also evidence to suggest that, controlling for other factors, a parent's savings and net worth correlate with a child's educational attainment. As one example, a 2008 paper from the Center for Social Development on the topic can be found here; it finds that parents' liquid assets have significantly positive associations with years of schooling, high school graduation, and college attendance. Finally, college savings can make for savvier consumers. If families have more personal funds to spend on college, the likelihood increases that they will shop around for a better deal. If people start saving, they inevitably think about costs earlier, making them more conscious of price options. If policymakers can get families to save on a broader (or even universal) scale, it has the potential to create competition among major universities to give students more bang for their buck.

This is not to say that 529s, as currently structured, are perfect. Too many 529 administrators incorporated too much risk in their investments, which meant that so-called "conservative" investments were anything but. In general, there are a couple of ways to fix this without going so far as to dismiss the very idea of the investment plan. For instance, how about mandating that each state plan has a truly safe capital preservation option, such as an FDIC insured account, that a family can use as the tuition bills become larger on the horizon (like a number of states currently do)? Or in a down market, how about allowing families to change their mix of investments quarterly (as opposed to twice a year, which is now a temporary rule)? Or, if we want to stretch out the timeline for those families who have had the misfortune of losing money as college approaches, perhaps allow 529 monies to temporarily be used to pay off student loans.

Generally, these fixes all come with tradeoffs, and the implications of some remain unexamined, but the point remains that these investment vehicles could stand to be improved without being scrapped. The College Savings Initiative hopes to do so by conducting research on innovative 529 features such as matching deposits and seeding accounts, as well as studying policy options such as reforming higher education tax credits to better meet at-risk populations. Without the option of a 529, low-income families would lose yet another opportunity to reap the benefits of saving and investing, and move up the income ladder. Savings is certainly not a silver bullet, but we believe it is an essential part of any plan to address the college affordability crisis.

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