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As a parent or grandparent, you may have diligently saved money in a 529 account to support your child’s or grandchild’s college education. But what happens if they decide college isn’t the right path for them? It’s a valid question that many families are facing as alternative education options become increasingly popular.
The landscape is changing, with fewer students opting for traditional four-year colleges, and the costs of education continuing to rise. American undergraduate enrollment rates peaked in 2010 and have steadily declined since, while college costs have increased over 12 percent during the same period.
A 529 plan, designed for tax-advantaged college savings, may still be a valuable tool even if your child chooses a different educational route. It’s crucial to remember that having a 529 account doesn’t limit the funds solely to a four-year college education.
Consider these options:
- Two-Year Programs and Trade Schools: Funds in a 529 account can be used for two-year programs, such as those leading to an associate’s degree or at a trade school. Many vocational schools offer programs that equip students with valuable skills, opening doors to careers that don’t require a traditional four-year degree.
- International Education: Explore educational opportunities outside the United States. Many countries offer programs that might align with your child’s interests. Utilizing the funds in a 529 account allows you to support their academic goals, regardless of the location.
- Primary and Secondary Education Expenses: The rules for 529 accounts now allow for up to $10,000 per year to be used for tuition expenses at elementary, middle, or secondary schools. Additionally, a lifetime maximum of up to $10,000 of 529 assets can be used to repay existing student loans.
- Transferability and Flexibility: If the original beneficiary doesn’t use the 529 plan, you have the option to transfer the funds to another family member preparing for college or even use them for your education if you decide to return to school.
As part of the 2022 SECURE Act 2.0, effective in 2024, a 529 account holder can move money to a Roth IRA under certain conditions, offering additional financial flexibility. However, it’s crucial to understand the conditions and limitations associated with this option.
While taking money out of a 529 account for nonqualified expenses incurs costs, such as federal income taxes and a 10 percent penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal, there’s an exception for scholarship or grant amounts.
The truth is, college isn’t the best fit for everyone. Some young adults may find more value in vocational schools or pursuing their chosen field through smaller classes or specialized institutes of learning. As you guide and advise the student in your life through these decisions, remember that a 529 account provides versatility and is designed to adapt to different educational paths.
By understanding how a 529 plan functions and working with a financial professional, you can leverage its potential opportunities to support the educational goals of your child or grandchild, regardless of their chosen path.