Morningstar currently rates 54 529 plans, representing 93% of the assets in the industry. Of those 54, two receive our top mark of Gold, reflecting our highest confidence in the plans’ ability to provide participants with compelling investment results.
While these two plans may not be the best options for everyone (once personal preferences or tax situations come into the picture), they serve as examples of what is possible in a 529 plan, and it behooves diligent investors to take note.
Why? Because best-in-class standards help an investor shape expectations and make a selection, even as applied to a subset of 529 options best suited to their personal profiles. Below, we discuss some of the features that distinguish the two Gold-rated plans from their peers.
Before We Start: Applying Morningstar’s Medalist Rating to 529 Plans
Morningstar’s Medalist Rating for 529 plans considers four supporting pillars:
For each pillar, we look for what we believe are best-in-class industry practices, including:
- Skilled investment teams with experience managing multi-asset strategies;
- A well-researched asset-allocation approach;
- A robust process for selecting investments and managing risk;
- The state agency’s ability to provide thoughtful oversight and stewardship; and
- Lower fees relative to Morningstar Category peers in age-based or target-enrollment options.
The pillar scores are then rolled up to arrive at a Morningstar Medalist Rating, which reflects our analysts’ confidence in each plan’s ability to offer a compelling risk-adjusted performance relative to peers.
First-Rate Plans: Michigan and Utah
As of May 2023, the two plans that hold Morningstar Medalist Ratings of Gold are the Michigan Education Savings Program and Utah’s my529. Each offers a well-designed age-based or target-enrollment series, which are set-it-and-forget-it investment options that gradually derisk during the accumulation and savings period. They also employ a solid menu of static options of mutual funds and/or exchange-traded funds that provide exposure to individual asset classes and a safe vehicle to park cash, such as an FDIC-insured savings account.
Utah: Customization for Experienced Investors
Utah’s my529 has consistently been one of our favorite offerings, setting industry standards on many fronts and currently differentiating itself from peers with customization capabilities.
The series employs a progressive glide path, which starts with a 100% allocation to equities and falls to 17% by enrollment. This gradual shift is an industry best practice, as it helps education savers avoid the risk of meaningfully shifting out of equities just after a market dip, when there is the potential to lock in losses. The underlying lineup using Vanguard index funds provides broad market exposure at a low cost. This design earns it an Above Average Process rating. The fees for these portfolios are low, at 0.14%-0.15%.
The team behind my529 boasts topnotch resources, underpinning a High People rating. Instead of hiring an investment manager for the plan, the state employs its own well-resourced and experienced investment team. A dedicated group of roughly 75 professionals handles everything from portfolio management to recordkeeping. The team also receives support from an investment advisory committee and multiple independent consultants. These additional resources and insights provide an edge compared with the typical 529 peer. We rate the state parent as High because its centralized oversight structure allows for engaged stewardship of the plan, and the state has earnestly continued to reduce fees.
One distinctive feature that only the Utah plan offers is the ability to create a custom series in which investors design their own glide path and select the underlying investments. The investment menu includes 22 options, such as Vanguard index funds and DFA funds that cover broad asset classes, style and size, and strategies with a sustainable investment focus. Given the degree of customization for this option, it is suitable for experienced investors or those who work with an investment advisor.
Michigan: Low Cost, Easy to Use
Michigan Education Savings Program offers an easy-to-use, straightforward series with extremely low average fees of 0.10%.
Michigan also employs a progressive glide path, but one slightly flatter than Utah’s, as it starts with an 80% equity allocation and lands at 20% by college enrollment. (This can result in some performance differences depending on the market environment.)
This shape is influenced by the historical average age of the beneficiary when the account opens. This prudent approach aids investors who may have delayed saving for education expenses and supports a High Process rating. The enrollment-date portfolios hold mostly index funds, with a slightly more diversified lineup relative to Utah, as it also includes REITs, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, and high-yield bonds.
This plan was designed via an effective collaboration between the Michigan Bureau of Investments and its dedicated program manager TIAA, driving its Above Average People rating. Michigan, with its investment staff, conducts in-house research and taps participant studies to make informed investment decisions on behalf of beneficiaries. For instance, the state worked closely with TIAA to design the target enrollment glide path that came into effect in 2020. It also pushed for improvements in the underlying lineup, resulting in an offering that includes highly rated Vanguard, iShares, Schwab, and TIAA funds. This move also resulted in lower fees for the series, and the plan continues to be among the cheapest in the industry. Their dedication to shaping a simple, low-cost plan around their participants’ evolving needs also supports a High Parent rating.
The two Gold-rated 529 plans differ on some fronts, but they share the key characteristics of being excellent stewards of capital for the end investors. Namely: a skilled investment team, a robust investment and oversight process, reasonably low fees, and more. While these plans exemplify many of what Morningstar considers as best practices, there are many other plans we rate that investors can explore. Depending on personal circumstances and preferences, a thoughtful investor can still settle on a different plan. Subscribers to Morningstar.com can access our 529 plan reports and ratings from the 529 Plan Center map.
The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.