Wonder how much parents have been contributing recently to their kids' college-savings plans in this fitful economy? Short answer: Not much.
Just ask Michael Heenan, a Sacramento-based communications consultant. When the economy was growing in 2006 and 2007, he and his wife were contributing a stellar $24,000 a year to the 529 college savings plan for their daughter, who is now 11. "We wanted to be able to say, 'Honey, if you want to go to Harvard or MIT, you go!' We were a couple of years away from being able to take a huge financial concern off the table."
But his income dipped along with the recession, and paired with the tanking stock market, it "brought annual contributions to a halt," says the 48-year-old. "One time I opened a statement, looked at the number, and thought, 'Well, to hell with that'."
Heenan's not alone in shying away from college savings, as a result of being spooked by a wildly gyrating stock market and rising tuition bills. New figures for the nation's 529 plans are in from Boston-based Financial Research Corp., and there was a $354 million outflow in the third quarter. The last time parents pulled cash out of college-savings plans, rather than putting in: The fall of 2008, when the financial crisis was at its height.
Those negative numbers mean that while cash is being withdrawn to cover college costs -- the 529's intended purposed, after all -- not much new money is coming in. As unemployment stays stubbornly high, housing remains dead money and stocks swing wildly, families feel far from financially secure. After the mortgage and all the monthly bills, there's not a lot of extra cash for many families left in the till for Junior's future.
"It's a troubling number, but the trend is not surprising," says Andrea Feirstein, founder of Manhattan-based AKF Consulting and an adviser to 529 plans around the country. "People are feeling whipsawed, and worried about their jobs. You take the economy, you take the volatility, you take all the uncertainty: If you're under serious financial pressure, are you going to save for college for your kids? I'm not so sure."
The sluggish 529 figures aren't solely a reflection of tapped-out parents, though. One structural reason: The third quarter coincides with the start of the school year, which is when parents start drawing on 529 plans to cover their kids' educational expenses.
But this is only the second time ever that 529 plans have seen net quarterly withdrawals. Even last year, over the same time period, investors shoveled almost a billion dollars into the same plans. It seems that in 2011, parents are battening down the hatches, and concentrating on more immediate priorities like food and shelter.
"In 2010 there was a better feeling about the economy, and a glimmer of hope about the future," says Feirstein about last year's superior savings. "Now it's been dawning on us that things might not get better for a while. The middle class, who should be doing most of the saving, is feeling more pressured than ever. People are saying, 'What are we going to do?"'
That might be why parents are now coming up with only 37 percent of the total college bill, compared to 47 percent last year alone, according to the Sallie Mae study "How America Pays for College".
College-savings plans are still being tapped by 14 percent of families, but students are helping to keep a lid on expenses by opting for lower-cost colleges and relying more on grants and scholarships.
And that tectonic shift, away from parents trying to foot all of the college bills, is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Stuart Ritter, a certified financial planner with T. Rowe Price in Baltimore. After all, college savings should not be the foremost priority of cash-strapped parents; retirement, emergency funds and insurance should all take precedence. He makes the analogy of airplane travel with kids: "You need to put on your own oxygen mask first."
That's exactly what parents have been doing, although Curley says that the current outflows won't last forever. He projects $3 billion flowing into plans for 2011's fourth quarter -- on par with 2010's figures -- as parents contribute for the year-end tax benefits, grandparents chip in for the holiday season, and the stock market recovers from its wretched third-quarter performance.
At least, savings experts hope that's the case, since college costs aren't going down any time soon, with tuition, fees and living expenses. According to the College Board, tuition and fees for public four-year institutions are now $8,244 a year for in-state students ($12,526 for out-of-state); private colleges will set you back a whopping $28,500 a year. Tuition and board at many of the country's most prestigious colleges tops $50,000, although many students receive financial aid. For example, full freight this year at Harvard is $52,652, but more than 60 percent of students receive aid.
Considering those steadily rising costs, a recession-induced moratorium on college savings would have deadly ramifications for student debt down the line.
That's what Sacramento's Henan is beginning to realize. With only about seven years until his daughter starts college, he needs to crank up his 529 savings once again, even though he still hasn't gotten over his fear of the baffling stock market. "Once, 2018 seemed like it was a million years away," he says. "But now I realize it'll be here in the blink of an eye."
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