Families in Virginia saving for college in the states 529 plan might want to take a harder look at a relatively new investment account– the tuition track portfolio. Sending your kids to college is one of the largest expenses for most families. Thoughtfully and efficiently growing your college savings will allow parents to get one step closer to their own financial independence.
What is Virginia’s Tuition Track Portfolio?
Virginia’s Tuition track portfolio is a tax-advantaged investment account within the state of Virginia’s 529 plan. The growth of the account matches the average tuition costs increase each year in Virginia. It falls within a category of investment types knows as principal protected portfolios.
Why is Virginia’s Tuition Track Portfolio So Great?
Before getting to know how this account works, as well as some the important details, I want to begin with why, in my view, this account may be a great option for more parents to consider. The main benefit is the investment will not fluctuate in value like other investments and falls into the category of “principal protected” portfolios. This is similar to a cash like feature that offers the potential for higher interest, without loss of value.
Reasons to consider:
This investment does not have market volatility like traditional investment accounts
Investors earn an interest credit each year based on what the average tuition cost increase has been for a set of Virginia Schools. College tuition inflation has historically significantly outpace broader inflation. For the 2022 to 2023 academic year this was a 4.44% interest rate.
Given long-term tuition increases this creates the possibility of relatively attractive returns without traditional investment risk.
The account does not have to be used only for Virginia schools but can be used for any qualified higher education costs in the country.
While the interest credited is based on tuition increases, the funds can still be used for other non-tuition costs, just like other 529 plan investments.
Virginia 529 plan has been offering a match in June giving away “free” money by partially matching contributions. During the summer of 2023 they gave a $100 deposit for a new $250 contribution made before 06/30 into the tuition track portfolio.
While the name of the account references “tuition” the funds can be used for a variety of higher-educated related costs. Items that 529 plans can pay for (including tuition track) are as follows:
Room and board
Computers & Equipment
Tuition Track compared to Target Enrollment Funds
The most commonly used investment option inside 529 plans are target enrollment portfolios. These are similar investments to target date funds that are used for retirement saving in many 401(k)s. They start more aggressive with greater stock investments when the student is younger and become more conservative as the target start date approaches.
However, one key difference is while workers have decades to save for retirement there is far less time to save for college, creating much more timing risk with target enrollment funds.
The main reason to use target enrollment funds compared to the tuition track portfolio is the potential for returns that outpace tuition inflation. Given how hard it is to save for college the greater growth potential can be incredibly powerful. However, this potential benefit is uncertain and can be drastically affected by timing risk for each student . The chance for outpacing inflation is also heavily centered in the early years while the accounts have more stock exposure – reducing the chance for parents who start saving when kids are older.
3 Potential Strategies to use Tuition Track
Strategy #1 – Primary invest for college costs using a basket of investment options that entail risk such as target enrollment funds or a portfolio of index funds. Using multiple accounts can lead to the potential for greater Virginia state tax deductions if contributing more than $4k/year per child. As part of a diversified approach, consider using a smaller portion into the tuition track – say $100/month. Take advantage of any promotional matching offers from by Virginia 529 as well as an additional tax deduction.
Strategy #2 – parents could start with target date funds until their child reached high-school (see three-year rule below). Then switch the funds to Virginia’s tuition track portfolio. New savings during the high school years could be directed towards the same target enrollment fund that has been being used (now with a zero balance) or another principal protected portfolio such as the stable value or FDIC insured option. This could be a great option for parents who are on track to have 100% of college costs saved or very close to it.
Strategy #3 – Only use the tuition track portfolio from the beginning of your college savings plan. This is an option for more cautious investors that do not want to have market fluctuation. While this option is certainly not wrong – the potential for lower returns will likely require more savings over time and starting as early as possible.
Key Items to Consider & Unique Rules
Like with everything in the world of finance there are always tradeoffs to consider. The most prominent one related to the tuition track portfolio is a three-year rule but there are others to consider as well.
3 year rule – funds have to be in the tuition track portfolio for at least three years before they are withdrawn.
Must be a Virginia resident to open an account
Interest is credited once a year based on data from the prior year. This happens each summer around June 30th. So it is suggested to get any funds into the portfolio before this occurs
Not eligible for distributions for K-12 schools like other 529 options.
If excess is left over the account owners have 10 years to use of change the beneficiary to another family member
Can move funds from tuition track portfolio to another Va 529 investment portfolio
Under new tax laws under secure 2.0 could still have potential to be rolled over to Roth IRA for the student (other conditions to be met).
Rule of thumb – to be safe I think it is a good rule of thumb to plan on stopping to contribute to tuition track portfolios by the time your student reaches high school. This should safely cover the three-year rule.
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GuidePoint Financial Planning - Reston Financial Planning
Ryan Phillips, CFA, CFP® is the founder of GuidePoint Financial Planning. He is passionate about helping busy families plan, save, and invest for their financial future. Contact him today if you are interested in learning more about the benefits of working with a fee-only (no-commission) financial planner.
All material above is for educational purposes only and is no way a recommendation to buy or sell investment securities. You should always review investment changes with qualified professionals. The data referenced is very short-term in nature and is used for educational means.