Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: College savings plans are impetus to “go on” and finish

Congress and the White House have it within their grasp to accomplish something truly beneficial on behalf of the citizens of Idaho this year in the form of a bill that would clarify that computer technology and equipment are a qualified higher education expense, eliminate the burden of unnecessary paperwork by removing distribution aggregation requirements, and finally, it permits account owners to redeposit refunds from colleges back into a 529 account without taxes or penalties.

I am encouraged by the support we have seen by our Congressional Delegation and the entire Congress. The bill passed the House on a 401-20 vote earlier this year. It is already moving through committee in the Senate and we have received strong support from our senators to help move this forward.

Idaho’s IDeal 529 program was launched in 2001 and is a self-supported program that receives no direct funding from the General Fund. There is no cost to the taxpayer to manage the program.

Anyone can open and contribute to an IDeal account for any loved one: a child, grandchild, niece, friend or even yourself. The program offers families certain financial and tax benefits, but equally important, it helps set a college-bound culture in the home.

One of our greatest challenges in the Gem State is to increase college entry for Idaho students. A 2010 study found that students with college savings accounts, regardless of the account balance, are seven times more likely to attend college.

College affordability is an issue that thousands of Idahoans struggle with every year. The price of a college education is more expensive than ever before, saddling many graduates with seemingly insurmountable debt before they can even start their careers. Programs such as 529 College Savings Plan help alleviate this burden by allowing families to set aside money for their children’s future college expenses.

Middle-class Idaho families are largely driving the growth in these plans, with 39 percent of accounts being funded by systematic contributions that average $146 a month.

The majority of plans allow minimum contributions as low as $25 per month to encourage participation by families of all income levels. As of 2014, the average 529 account balance was $20,671, which can go a long way toward helping a student realize a dream of a college education.

Another big improvement to 529 plans as a result of this proposal is allowing for distributions to be re-deposited within 60 days of their withdrawal without a tax-penalty if students experience serious illness or sudden life circumstances that require them to take leave from their studies. There is no doubt that this is the right thing to do, as families save for years to put their children through college and should not be penalized for life events that are out of their control.

The educational landscape and job market have drastically changed in the past 20 years, and the tools families rely on to afford a college education must be updated to reflect these realities. We hope the Senate will follow in the House’s footsteps by supporting S. 335 and strengthening 529 College Savings Plans so that American families throughout the country can afford the college education their children need and deserve.

Congress has shown overwhelming bipartisan support for a bill that will help Idaho families, all American families, reach and achieve the goal of a college education without going into debt for years or decades after graduation. I am hopeful President Obama will also see the wisdom in this measure.

For more information about the IDeal program go to my website at sto.idaho.gov.

Ron Crane is Idaho State Treasurer.

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