The Best 529 Plans in 2020

Saving for future college expenses gets a little easier thanks to the tax and financial benefits of state-sponsored 529 plans. 529 plans are individual to each state, but you can take advantage of plans across state lines if you’re more interested in what another option has to offer.

529 plans come in two main types — prepaid tuition plans and college savings plans. Prepaid tuition plans allow parents, guardians or relatives to prepay for all or part of in-state tuition costs. These plans can be more restrictive as the plans allow for funds to be used for room and board. Additionally, the plans have limitations on which colleges you can use them.

The second type of 529 plan is a college savings plans. These accounts hold funds typically invested in mutual funds that can grow with the market. Contrary to prepaid tuition, college savings plans can be utilized by the student for a wide array of educational expenses. Both plans offer advantages and disadvantages interested college-savers need to know.

Best 529 Plans

Your first stop in shopping for a 529 plan is to look at what your state has to offer. Many states offer tax benefits to residents who invest in local plans. If your state does not offer tax breaks or you’re interested in better options, you can start looking at some of the best 529 plans elsewhere in the country.

The best 529 college savings plans all have some of the same characteristics. The plans have thoroughly researched and well-allocated assets, low fees, adequate oversight and management of the plan and options to meet the needs of different investors.

California’s ScholarShare College Savings Plan

The 529 college savings plan offered in California is one of the top-performing options in the country. The plan comes with no application fees, no cancellation fees and no change in beneficiary fees. You just pay the standard program management and mutual fund fees. According to Morningstar, the plan’s board voted to shift from age-based portfolios to progressive glide path in February 2020 — an industry best practice for an upgrade to the plan’s rating.

Illinois’ BrightStart Direct-Sold College Savings program

This 529 college savings plan from the state of Illinois has earned Morningstar’s Elite Gold rating three years in a row. Illinois residents who invest in this plan can deduct up to $10,000 per Illinois taxpayer and double for married taxpayers filing jointly. The account has adequate oversight through regular audits by third-party accountants, the Treasurer and State.

Utah’s my529 plan

The my529 plan from Utah offers several investment portfolio options for investors to choose from. Current 10-year average annualized returns on investment options available through this plan span from the low 1%s up to the mid 12%s. The plan was created in 1996 and is the state’s only 529 college savings plan option. Utah taxpayers and corporations that invest in 529 plans may take an income tax credit up to the current allowable threshold.

Michigan Education Savings Program (MESP)

Investment options through Michigan’s Education Savings Program include age-based investments, guaranteed investments, multi-fund investments and single-fund investment options. Distributions from the MESP plan used by residents to pay for qualified higher education expenses are free from federal and Michigan state income taxes.

529 plans with tax benefits

The aforementioned 529 plans are not the only options that offer tax benefits to investors. 30+ different state plans allow for tax benefits to residents and, in some cases, investors from out of state.

State Tax deduction
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 full contribution amount No
Connecticut up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Georgia up to $2,000/$4,000 No
Idaho up to $6,000/$12,000 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
Maryland up to $2,500/$2,500 No
Massachusetts up to $1,000/$2,000 No
Maryland up to $2,500/$5,000 No
Michigan up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Minnesota up to $1,500/$3,000 Yes
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 Mexico full contribution amount No
New York up to $5,000/$10,000 No
North Dakota up to $5,000/$10,000 No
Ohio up to $4,000/$4,000 No
Oklahoma up to $10,000/$20,000 No
Oregon up to $2,375/$4,750 No
Pennsylvania up to $15,000/$30,000 Yes
Rhode Island up to $500/$1,000 No
South Carolina full contribution amount No
Utah up to $2,000/$4,000 No
Vermont up to $2,500/$5,000 No
Virginia up to $4,000/$4,000 No
Washington, D.C. up to $4,000/$8,000 No
West Virginia full contribution amount No
Wisconsin up to $3,050/$6,100 No

529 Plan Pros

  • Most 529 plans are flexible. There are few limitations to who can invest in a 529 plan for future higher education expenses. It’s not required that the investor be a parent or legal guardian opening the door for other family members to make tax-advantaged contributions. Additionally, plan beneficiaries can be changed at any time if the need arises. Many plans, like the California ScholarShare plan, don’t even charge a fee for beneficiary changes.
  • These investment savings plans have a minimal impact on financial aid. While the beneficiary of a 529 plan is the child, the asset is classified as a parental asset for financial aid purposes. This may seem like a small detail, but it can play a role in acceptance for financial aid. 529 plans are not included in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms.
  • Many states offer tax benefits to 529 plan investors. The tax benefits of 529 college savings plans are deferred like a Roth IRA plan. Funding of the account is done through after-tax dollars but can be withdrawn tax-free when it’s used to pay for higher education expenses.

Cons of 529 Plans

  • There are some limitations on what you can invest in. When you invest in a 529 plan to save for college, there are limited investment choices. Typically, your options are limited to mutual funds that meet a certain risk threshold. While this might not be ideal for more aggressive investors, it can offer an added layer of oversight for funds that you will need to be there down the road.
  • 529 plans don’t guarantee returns. College savings plans are invested in the market, just like any other investment account you might have. Because of this, the accounts are subject to the ebb and flow of the market. With some 529 plans, you can invest in guaranteed investments (like the Michigan Education Savings Program), but you may not see as high of returns as you’d like.
  • You may be limited in how you can spend the money. Prepaid tuition 529 plans do give you the ability to lock in your state tuition rate as of today. However, these plans don’t allow you to save for other expenses like room and board, supplies, computers, etc., that may be very costly. The good news, though, is the other variant of 529 plans, the college savings plan, does allow you to save for expenses outside of just tuition.

The bottom line

The best 529 savings plans can be a powerful tool to save for future educational expenses. Before you invest, decide if you’re better suited for a prepaid tuition plan or a college savings plan. From there, look at what your state has to offer and what other states in the country are offering. Remember, while you might see bigger tax benefits staying in-state, that is not always the case.

Jason Lee
Jason Lee
Contributing Writer

Jason Lee is a U.S.-based freelance writer with a passion for writing about dating, banking, tech, personal growth, food and personal finance. As a business owner, relationship strategist, and officer in the U.S. military, Jason enjoys sharing his unique knowledge base and skill sets with the rest of the world. Follow Jason on Facebook here