Job and stock markets a double-whammy for college savingsby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
These hard economic times are putting the squeeze on many parents hoping to save money to help their kids pay for college. According to a recent Gallup poll, about half of parents say they're saving less or nothing at all. In Minnesota the trends are mixed.
St. Paul, Minn. — You can get a good read on parents' college-savings efforts by looking at so-called 529 plans. They're a very popular vehicle for college savings. Money put into 529 plans grows tax free and about a third of parents use them.
"We do see a downturn in contributions coming in, which we expect in the market we have today, especially with the job market," said Renee Hill, program manager for Minnesota's 529 plan, known as the Minnesota College Savings Plan.
She said in the final three months of 2008, for instance, contributions fell by nearly one-quarter from the same period in 2006. That's a drop of about $8 million.
Hill sees a very encouraging sign, though, even as contributions slip.
"Parents and grandparents continue to open up accounts to save for their child's or grandchild's education," Hill said.
The number of kids signed up for the Minnesota 529 plan is soaring, even in this economy. In the past two years, enrollment has risen about one-fifth to 51,000.
The kids' elders, for the most part, just aren't kicking in as much money as they once did.
Jo Chambers of Northfield is bucking that trend. She's been able to keep up contributions to her daughter, Lizzie's, plan. And Chambers hopes to continue to hit that target.
"As long as I have my job," she said.
Chambers is listening to her investment advisor's counsel about buying stocks while they're down.
"He said to buy now is the best thing to do because you're getting more shares now," she said.
But Chambers doesn't have a lot of time to make up for the hit her daughter's 529 account has taken. Her daughter is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.
"What's hard is she is not five years old," Chambers said. "We're right in the thick of it. So, I am sort of gambling."
For now, Chambers is tapping other resources and savings, hoping the 529 account will bounce back before she has to tap it.
As the stock market swooned lots of people saw painful drops in 529 account balances.
Bridget Freed started a 529 for her high school son Devin in 2001, when he was in elementary school. A few years later, she had to cut her contribution by nearly two-thirds. Her pay fell after her employer was acquired by another company and Freed had to edge her way back to her old salary.
Her investments in the 529 plan lost as much as half their value at one point because of the stock market's decline.
But Freed is still optimistic about covering much or most of her son's college expenses. Freed wants him to be able to study what he wants -- without worrying about how marketable his degree may be.
"My initial goal," said Freed, "was to be able to offer my son the experience where he could study what he wanted to without this looming 'what-am-I-going-to-do, how-are-you-going-to-make-money' concern while he's doing an undergraduate course of study."
To maximize her college dollars, Freed is encouraging her son to consider public universities. She's expecting he'll be able to pick up a good number of college credits before he leaves high school. He'll be taking advantage of advanced placement tests and the College in the Schools program.
Earning college credits while in high school can save students and their parents tens of thousands of dollars. That can be critical to financing a college degree these days, something most parents are worried about.
A Gallup Poll done this spring found more than half doubt they'll meet their college saving goals.
- Morning Edition, 06/18/2009, 6:50 a.m.