California - Saving For College Report

We discuss the tax benefits, trends, do's and don'ts and various plan options of setting up a 529 college savings plan in California

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As parents, grandparents and students we know college is coming and that we're somehow going to have to pay for it someday. Fortunately we have many options available to us including savings bonds, the stock market and 529 plans. Starting a 529 account now is always the best option, no matter how old you (or your child) is. While playing the stock market may yield higher returns on your investment, placing your money into a 529 plan allows it to grow in a tax free environment. One study even found that when the federal tax benefits were taken into consideration, 529 plans outperformed their benchmarks in every category.

California has it's own state-operated 529 plan called ScholarShare College Savings Plan. It is important to note that your child does not have to go to a CA college or university in order to use this savings account. 529 plan funds can be used at any accredited college or university across the nation, including some K-12 private schools!

California College Costs & Trends

Colleges and universities across the United States experienced increased operating costs of 2.5% in 2019. This most recent inflation figure was down slightly from the 2.9 percent increase in 2018 and 3.4 percent increase in 2017. These costs are forwarded directly to students in the form of higher tuition and living expenses. As these costs steadily rise every year, parents are looking for ways to help offset these future higher education costs.

These rising costs are hitting closer to home in California as well. California's' higher education costs rose by 68.5% in just the last 10 years, ranking as the 7th highest state.

The table below shows the average one-year costs in 2020 for different types of CA colleges and universities.

OwnershipDegreeSchoolsPublic Out-of-State TuitionPublic In-State TuitionMedian DebtTotal Annual In-State Cost
Public 4 year 35 $25,648 $9,159 $16,250 $12,106
Public 2 year 129 $7,246 $1,256 $9,010 $6,261
Private 4 year 213 $31,900 $31,900 $23,810 $28,122
Private 2 year 279 $34,170 $34,170 $9,193 $18,092

These costs rise every year. Rising tuition is a major driver in these increased higher education costs. Tuition at a 4-year university in CA rose 9% (ranked 44th worst in the US), while a 2-year or trade school increased their tuition by 0 percent.

529 Tax Benefits for California Residents

Unfortunately California does not offer any tax benefits for socking away funds in a 529 account for your child. Thankfully, CA residents can open an account in any other state that lets them.

Best 529 Plans in California

TIAA-CREF took over the management of California's ScholarShare 529 from Fidelity in November 2011. The plan features two age-based options; one using actively managed mutual funds and one using index mutual funds. It also offers 17 static investment options.

State Plan Name:ScholarShare College Savings Plan
Minimum Contribution:$25
Maximum Contribution:Account balances cannot exceed $475,000 per designated beneficiary. Balances continue to accrue earnings.
Fees:0.03% asset management fee and a 0.05% board administrative fee

California 529 Plan Statistics

There are 325,060 registered in California with a total value of $9,359,464,203. That is an average of $28,793 per account. Unfortunately 529 plans are not widely used... a 2018 study by Edward Jones found that only 29 percent of Americans were even aware that 529 savings plans exist!

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