Where you store your child's college savings could impact his or her ability to attend college almost as much as grades and standardized test scores. Section 529 plans -- the college savings vehicle preferred by many families and financial advisers -- offer federal and sometimes state tax benefits, and subtract far less from a student's financial aid package than money stored in a checking or savings account. But having a robust 529 college savings plan could hurt the student's chances at tapping other sources of financial aid, which has parents starting to examine other options, such as cash value life insurance policies. These policies, for example, don't offer state tax incentives but have fewer restrictions on distributions and offer a place for families to shelter funds from the federal financial aid methodology.
In the battle between 529 college savings plans versus permanent life insurance, here's how both fare.
Round 1: Flexibility
According to the Internal Revenue Service, money in a 529 college savings plan can only be used for "qualified education expenses" including tuition, fees, books, and room and board at an accredited U.S. school. Should your child opt out of college, choose a foreign or unaccredited school or receive a full scholarship, you can transfer 529 funds to another beneficiary or pull the funds out and pay income tax on the withdrawal. You may also have to back taxes if you've taken state tax deductions over the years as well as a 10% penalty on earnings.
"With life insurance, it doesn't matter how you use the cash," says Jim Van Meter, founder and president of The College Planning and Funding Advisor in Reno, Nev. A student can use life insurance savings for college, a down payment on a house, to start a business or for retirement, he says.
Round 2: Risk
Section 529 college savings plans fluctuate with the market. Whole and universal insurance policies frequently provide guaranteed returns if time is on your side, says Myron Feinberg, a Certified Financial Planner and founder of the College Aid Specialist in Commack, N.Y.
"In the first two years of a life insurance policy you're getting a minimal of rate of return because (insurance providers) are pulling out the costs," says Feinberg. "After 10 or 12 years, you will see a rate of return of 4 (percent) to 5%."
Guaranteed returns can cap your earnings. Should the market generate returns above the fixed rate on your policy, life insurance holders may not earn any additional cash -- whether you can depends on your insurance provider and policy.
"The thing about a permanent life insurance policy is that you want to put as much money in as the government will allow you," says Jim Kuhner, owner and certified college planning specialist at College Selection Strategy in Keller, Texas.
Unlike 529 plans, some life insurance policies use a tiered system when doling out returns. The more you invest, the better your return rate. To maximize earnings, Kuhner advises families to purchase a policy with a low death benefit and to contribute the maximum allowance.
Round 3: Financial Aid
One of the major advantages to using a cash value policy for college savings is that money in an insurance plan won't reduce your financial aid. Money in a 529 college savings plan can subtract up to 5.6 cents in aid for every dollar stored in the account, but cash value policies are sheltered from the federal financial aid formula, according to the Department of Education.
"If families take money out of a life insurance policy for college, they need to do that as a loan," says Van Meter.
Van Meter also says that taking a loan against a life insurance policy won't count against your financial aid but will reduce your death benefit. Cashing a policy out entirely will count as income and can reduce your aid package by up to 47% and could incur surrender charges.
Families with low assets are already protected from losing federal financial aid dollars. According to the Department of Education, families can hold up to $74,000 in assets -- including real estate outside the primary home, stock market investments, savings accounts and college saving vehicles -- without impacting their federal aid. Exactly how much depends on the age of the oldest parent.
Round 4: Cost
Section 529 administrative and advisory costs can range from 0.25% to 1.85% according to Morningstar, but charges on cash value insurance policies can easily top 2%, says Kuhner. To reduce the costs, Kuhner advises families to insure the student rather than listing him or her as the beneficiary.
"The mortality charges are going to be much less," he says, adding that policies for young, healthy kids are substantially cheaper than those for adults.
Besides paying higher administrative and advisory costs, Peter Laurenzo, a Certified Financial Planner and president of College Aid Planning Associates Inc. in Albany, N.Y., says parents saving for college in an insurance policy won't get a state income tax deduction that many 529 holders receive.
"In a New York 529 plan, (families) get a state tax deduction up to $5,000 per parent," he says. "That's significant."
However, not every state offers a 529 deduction and most that do only offer it to residents invested in that state's plan.
Before enrolling in a life insurance or 529 plan, comparison shop and have a financial adviser crunch the numbers to see whether the no-risk returns of a life insurance plan outweigh the costs and lost tax deduction.