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Should I rollover my GET units to Washington’s new 529 Dream Ahead Investment Plan?

Should I rollover my GET units to Washington’s new 529 Dream Ahead Investment Plan?

Washington state has a new 529 college savings plan called the “Dream Ahead College Investment Plan.”   It is in addition to the Guaranteed Education Tuition Plan, or GET.  For families who own GET units, the announcement of the Dream Ahead college savings plan is accompanied by a major decision to be made.  Should you rollover your GET units into the new 529 plan?

If this question applies to you, it will be important for you to make an informed decision.  I hope this blog post will help.  Full disclosure time:  I do not personally own any GET units, nor do I have any personal funds in the Dream Ahead College Savings plan (as of June 2018).  I don’t receive any compensation from either plan.  I am blogging about this topic because I have friends, family and clients asking about it.  This blog post is the result of my own independent research and analysis.  

To keep it readable, I am going to build an analogy wherein I equate a 529 plan with a brew pub.   The analogy is simple:  you can select any state’s 529 plan, just like you can select any brew pub to go into.  Every pub offers different types of beer, food and pricing.  Each 529 plan offers different styles of investments, and has different expenses associated with those investments.  It’s up to you to decide if the fare and costs are to your liking. 

For current owners of GET units, the new Dream Ahead plan opening is as if a new brewpub opened just down the street, with some grand opening deals to get your business.  You should check out the food and drink offerings soon, before the deals disappear (Sept 12 2018).  You want to decide if this is going to be your new pub of choice.

For families without any GET units, the new Dream Ahead plan opening is less pressing.  It’s as if a new craft brew pub opened up across town.  Ho-hum.  You might want to try it.  But, the fact is, for breweries and 529 plans, there are lots of options and you are not limited to which you go to.  In fact, I will argue that there may be slightly better 529 plans in different states than what Washington state has created.

This blog post is really intended for people trying to figure out what to do with their GET units.  In this post, I am going to tackle three topics:

  1.  A brief overview of 529 college savings plans, and why they are useful.
  2. An exploration of the question, Should you rollover your GET units to Washington’s new Dream Ahead Investment Plan?  Spoiler:  Unfortunately the answer will be, as usual in complicated matters, “It depends on you.”  
  3. A discussion of the new Dream Ahead Investment Plan, including how what investment options are available, and the fees. 

First, an overview of Washington’s two 529 plan options.  

529 plans and GET vs. Dream Ahead 

Both the Dream Ahead plan and the GET plan are 529 college savings plans.  529 plans are useful to pay for educational expenses for two main reasons:

  1. Tax-exempt growth of the account.  Contributions are made after tax, similar to a Roth IRA.  In the case of the state of Washington (where we do not have a state income tax), there is no up-front tax advantage; the only tax advantage is on investment growth.  When money from the account is used to pay for educational expenses, like tuition or a computer for class, no taxes are due.   The results is that tax advantages are most useful when there is a long period of time for investments to grow before the funds are needed.  Either your kids are young, or you are considering using the funds for later-stage college funding or graduate school. 
  2. Preferential treatment on the FAFSA.  Money held in a 529 plan, or distributed from a 529 plan, is treated in an advantageous way on the FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid).  This benefit is much more complicated, and involves many pesky details about your tax situation.  This benefit is useful for all ages of students, if the family will be filling out the FAFSA.

For more details about 529 plans in general, visit the useful Saving for College website.  If your student will be attending college soon (like within the next couple years), opening and funding a new 529 plan probably does not make sense.  And, there may be other good options for “late-stage” college funding (see reference [2] below).  However, IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING ROLLING OVER YOUR GET UNITS, the new 529 plan may be a tasty brew.  READ ON.  Washington’s two 529 plans have some key differences:

The GET program is a prepaid tuition plan.  In other words, you know what you are getting – a twelve pack of tuition that will taste the same today, tomorrow, or 18 years from now.  The account owner opens an account in the name of a student.  Then, the owner purchases “units.”  One-hundred units is worth a year of tuition at a public college or university in Washington state.  The program is called a “Prepaid tuition” program, because that is what it is.  You pay for tuition now, and you will have tuition in the future.  Guaranteed.  But, only at Washington state public institutions.  If your student attends a private college or an out-of-state institution, you must cash out the GET units at some the value at the time of cash out.  

Dream Ahead College Plan is an investment account.   The account owner (like a parent or grandparent) opens an account, with one named beneficiary (usually the future student).  The account owners contribute money, then decide how to invest it.  Account owners earn investment returns, but also assume all investment risk.  It’s sort of like how you must decide which beer you want once you get to the pub.  Unfortunately, selecting an investment option is not nearly as fun as selecting a beer.  However, a good choice may be more rewarding.  The Dream Ahead plan has many investment options.  The plan architects have selected, in my opinion, high-quality underlying funds.  Since the plan is an investment account, you will eventually have a dollar account balance that can be used to pay for future educational expenses at any educational institution that accepts dollars (i.e. that’s, uh, all of them) – picky details apply of course*.   

Which is the right plan for you?  This is a fairly complicated question.  Guaranteed sounds pretty simple, understandable, and tasty.  But, when the Washington state legislature put a cap on the rising costs of tuition, they threw a big wrench into the future finances of families with GET units.  If you think your student may want to go to a private university or an out-of-state institution, you really need to understand the economics of GET and make an informed decision.  Last fall, before the Dream Ahead plan was announced, I wrote about some of the underlying economics of the GET program, and some factors to consider when deciding what to do with your GET units.  You may want to read it for background on the economics:  Should I request a refund of my GET units?

Does it make sense for you to rollover your GET units into the Dream Ahead College Savings Plan?

What’s the deal?  If you rollover your GET units into the new Dream Ahead College Savings plan, you will receive a cash value payment of $143/unit which you can invest in different options.  This is a time-limited option.  You would need to opt-in by September 12, 2018.  The full deal is described in reference [1] below.

My quick opinion:  It’s a pretty good deal.  The current value of a GET unit based on tuition is about $104/unit.  The GET to Dream Ahead rollover offer is like a three-month long happy hour, where you can get 22 ounces when you paid for a pint.  As I said before, the actual best deal will depend on you.  And, or course, the devil is always in the details. 

What’s the catch?  If you are like me, this offer may raise a quizzical eyebrow, as the grandfatherly wisdom  of “if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is” may come to mind.  But, in this case the offer is real. 

Why is the GET offering this deal?  Prepaid plans work like this:  You pay up today for a guaranteed product in the future.  In the case of the GET plan, the value of a unit is based on the cost of tuition at the highest priced Washington state public university (one GET unit is worth 1% of annual tuition).  However, the price of a unit is determined by the underlying the cost of tuition, anticipated investment returns, various administrative costs, and the guarantee of the payment.  In 2017-18, the price of a single GET unit was $113.  But a few years ago, when tuition was rising fast (like between 2009 and 2013), GET plan managers were rightfully worried about covering future guaranteed tuition payments.  So, the price of a GET unit had been set to ensure the program could meet future obligations.  In 2012, the price was $172/unit! (source: reference [3]) 

In 2015, the Washington state legislature stepped in.  They passed legislation to cut the cost of tuition, AND to limit future growth of tuition to the growth rate of the median hourly wage.  All of a sudden, the future cost of tuition went way down.  Thus, the GET plan became over funded.  For more details about these economics, read my blog post referenced above, or click here. In the last couple years, the GET program has made some adjustments to help compensated GET unit holders who paid a high price.  The current rollover option includes another possible adjustment.

Two observations.  First of all, huzzah for Washington state legislators and families!  Our state university tuition is being kept affordable.  This is great news for the state of Washington, it’s families and its kids.  Secondly, another huzzah for the GET program for trying to make sure current GET unit holders are made right.  In my opinion, current GET unit holders are being treated thoughtfully and prudently.  But, you (as a GET unit holder) are only being presented with options, you still have to take action.     

The rollover offer

In 2018, the Washington state legislature passed Senate bill 6087, which actually gives three options for current GET unit holders:

1)  You can open a new Dream Ahead College Savings, and rollover your GET units into the new plan at a value of $143/unit.  This option is open from July 15, 2018 until September 12, 2018.

2)  You can leave your GET units in place, and you may receive additional units in two upward “adjustments.”  This option will automatically occur after September 12, 2018 before March 1, 2019.

3)  You can cash out your GET units today for a temporary amount of $117.82/unit, or the amount you contributed, whichever is greater.  This option is open from July 15, 2018 until September 12, 2018.

For the options directly from the horse’s mouth (from the GET program), please refer to reference [1] at the bottom of this post.  Also, they have produced a tidy, 3 minute Youtube video explanation here:

My longer opinion

For most people, the rollover (option #1) is going to be best.  Of course, you need to consider your own particular situation.  

Discussion

Let’s make these options concrete with an “case study.”  Pete and Carol are married, and have an 11-year old daughter, Wilson.  Wilson is a good student, she is interested in helping others, and she is a clever impersonator.  However, like 98% of students, she does not anticipate any substantial scholarship.  She will, however, want to attend university.  Carol wonders if Wilson will be drawn towards theater, maybe even a school in New York.  Carol and Pete want Wilson to have options  when it comes to helping her with college costs.

Pete and Carol currently own 200 GET units for Wilson.  They bought the units in two separate purchases:  100 units when Wilson was born for $74/unit, then another 100 units five years later for $172/unit. 

Over the last few years, the GET program has made a few adjustments to Pete and Carol’s account due to the “over funding” situation.  They’ve added units , and refunded some of the purchase price (officially called “unit rebasing” and “Amortization refunds.”)  The result is that today, Pete and Carol own about 227 units.  If you want details, send me an email.  The result is that their GET units are currently worth 2.27 years of tuition in Washington, or about $23,564 based on the current tuition rates.   

Here is what would happen to Pete and Carol’s GET units under each option:

Option 1:  They open a Dream Ahead College Savings plan.  They rollover their GET units for $143/unit.  Their new Dream Ahead account would be worth $32,444, for an immediate gain of $8,880 over the value of their current GET account.  They would need to invest the account according to their acceptable level of risk.  They would shoulder investment risk, although how much risk depends on the style of investment they select.  There are low risk options.

Option 2:    Once the rollover window closes (Sept. 12, 2018), Pete and Carol would receive adjustments to the number of units in their GET account.  There are two adjustments that will occur.  In Pete and Carol’s case they will receive an additional 0 to 30 units.  Thus, their account value will be between $23,564 and $26,680 for a gain of between $0 and $3,116.  Details are provided below this summary. 

Option 3:     Cash out units for a temporary payout value of $117.82/unit.  In this case, Pete and Carol would receive $27,009.  This represents a gain of $3,445 over their current GET account “value.”   They would need to decide what to do with their cash, and would likely face tax consequences on the gains if they did not rollover to another 529 plan.

Conclusion

The correct decision for you will depend on… you.  In the case of Pete and Carol, I would recommend taking the rollover.  They would achieve an immediate 38% return on their money.  Plus, they avoid their current situation where their GET account may lose ground to another institution’s tuition that is growing faster than tuition at Washington state schools. 

However, they will need to carefully consider how much risk they are willing to accept, and how much return they need to support Wilson’s college costs.  Thus, there will still be work to be done.   

A few other personal considerations:

If you are certain that your student is going to attend a Washington state school, and you like your life to be really simple, you may want to leave your GET units where they are.  This option has the advantage of a guarantee, and less PITA factor (Pain In The..).  However, if you think your student may want to use GET units to go to a college outside of the Washington state college system, the rollover deal is really the best option.  If you keep your money in GET, then the value will rise with the rate of college tuition, which is essentially around inflation (it’s of course more complicated than that).  If another institution’s tuition rises faster that Washington state tuition (which is likely), then the value of your GET units will lose ground.  For a more thorough read, and a guaranteed nap, see reference [3]. 

For more details on how (or if) you are eligible for the options above, you should contact GET directly and ask about your account.  Reference [1] is a link to the GET program website.    

Details of how the Option 2 GET unit adjustments was calculated (Option #2).  There will be at least two adjustments to your GET account.  The first adjustment is calculated as follows:

Adjustment #1 will be an addition of GET units based on a known formula.  It applies only if the average price you paid for GET units was above $117.82. It is calculated in three steps, with Pete and Carol’s situation described under each step:

a)  The difference between the average purchase price and $117.82 is determined. 

For Pete and Carol:  Their average price is $99.73/unit after the unit re basement and actuarial adjustments were applied.  Thus, they will not receive any additional units in the first adjustment.  If they had not received any previous adjustments, their average purchase price would be $123, for a $5.18 difference.

b)  The difference (a) is multiplied by the “number of qualifying units” (units with price over $117.82). 

For Pete and Carol:  No adjustment.  IF they had not recieved any adjustments from GET, then they would have 100 eligible units, so the adjustment 1 dollar value will be 100 * $5.18 = $518.  But they did receive the adjustment.

c)  The amount from part (b) is divided by the current price of a GET unit ($113) to arrive at additional units credited to the account. 

For Pete and Carol, if no adjustments had been made previously, they will receive an additional 4.6 GET units from adjustment #1.  

Adjustment #2 will depend on whether the GET program is still over funded once the first round of adjustments is made.  The amount of this second adjustment will not be known until the entire GET program is re-assessed for how it well it is positioned to meet future obligations.  However, the maximum adjustment is 15% additional units added to an account.   

For Pete and Carol, they could receive up to an additional 30 units (about 15% of their original 200 units).  Thus, at the end of the adjustment period, they will have between 227 and 257 units in their GET account.

The Dream Ahead Investment Plan

The final question I will address is:  Is the Dream Ahead Investment Plan any good? 

In summary, I think it is pretty decent. 

In the pub analogy, I think the beers and food are tasty, made from quality ingredients.  The service looks pretty good.  However, the prices are a bit high.  Not nose-bleed high, but more expensive than can be found at other pubs.  Stepping away from the analogy, the plan appears easy to setup, and has modest contribution minimums.  There are many investment options.  The underlying investment funds are good quality.  My only gripe (which is small), is that plan fees are higher than some state 529 plans.   

Investment Options

I like the investment options.  The plan has tried to limit the choices to what makes sense.  You can choose from traditional “static portfolios” or “Year of enrollment” portfolios.  Both types of portfolios are built from efficient index funds from Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, and JP Morgan.  I like the “year of enrollment” plans in particular.

  • Static portfolios are based on your level of acceptable risk/return preferences – Growth, Moderate Growth, Cash preservation, etc.  
  • Year-of-enrollment automatically adjust the risk/return profile of the underlying funds as the date of enrollment of the student gets nearer.   The way you would select one is,
    • Determine the year your student will start college (or start to need the money)
    • Determine your level of acceptable risk (conservative, moderate or aggressive).
    • Then, you select the appropriate portfolio.

For example, Pete and Carol’s daughter Wilson is 11 years old.  She will enter college in the year 2026.  They have some other resources available, and could make adjustments if the market really tanks.  Thus, they would like to aim for growth in their college savings investment.  They select the 2026 Growth portfolio.  Over time, the portfolio will automatically reduce risk (and potential return) as Wilson gets closer to college.  Figure 1 shows the anticipated allocation of the portfolio over time.

Figure 1.  WA state Dream Ahead Growth Investment Portfolio

The portfolio would be invested into 80% stocks, 20% bonds.  In two year’s time (2020), the portfolio will reduce stock exposure to 70% stock/30% bonds.   I have only illustrated the “Growth Portfolio.”  There are other risk portfolios out there. 

I am very purposefully not discussing “investment performance.”  The reason is that future investment returns are not very predictable, and are essentially out of our control.  What you can control is the possibility of growth, and hand-in-hand, the risk of loss.  Do you want a possibility of higher returns?  Would you rather put more emphasis on preservation of your dollars, and less possibility for growth?  These are questions you must answer, or you may want to consult a qualified financial advisor.  

The other thing you have control over is fees.  

Fees for Washington Dream Ahead plan

This my only gripe about the Dream Ahead plan.  For all investment plans, there is a $35 annual account fee + an asset-based fee of approximately 0.3% of your account balance.  The fees are higher than other 529 plans available.  For example, the Utah state plan, called the “My 529 plan” has similar underlying investments, but the total annual fee is 0.2% of the account balance.  For Pete and Carol, over 11 years of owning a 529 plan, they pay an additional in $600 fees in Washington’s Dream Ahead Investment plan over the Utah “My 529” plan.  

One option for Washington state GET account holders would be to open a Dream Ahead plan, and rollover the GET units now.  Then, in the summer of 2019, if fees continue as stated, and investment returns aren’t significantly different than the Utah plan, rollover your 529 to Utah’s plan.  You are allowed to rollover a 529 plan from one custodian to another once per year.

Conclusion

I think the Rollover to the Dream Ahead plan is a good idea for most people.  But, if you would like to talk more about your individual situation, contact us for a free consultation by clicking this link (or the orange button at the top of this page).  By free consultation, I mean free, as in no strings attached.  Some people just need a little more information.  There are others who want to engage in more significant conversation about college funding and savings.  If you want more, the consultation is designed for you to see if our services would be of value to you.  

Of, if you’d just like to read more of my thoughts, I’ve written a follow-up to this post, where I described two people’s stories and my experience contacting the GET program.  You can read it here:  GET to Dream Ahead part 3 – two stories.

* Not every school is considered a qualified institution for 529 distributions.  An institution is considered eligible only if they participate in federal financial aid programs through the U.S. department of education.  To see if a particular institution is eligible, I suggest you visit the source:   FAFSA webpage.  

About the author.  John Chesbrough is a Registered Investment Advisor and fee-only financial planner.  He is the owner of the independent, and fee-only financial advisory firm, Trail Financial Planning.  He likes people and financial matter, and how they intersect.  He does not receive any compensation from any product or plan mentioned.  


References:

The Washington GET program.  Thank you for being so helpful!  

[1]  Limited time offers for GET account owners

[2] Late Stage College Planning – Kitces.com

[3]  Washington State Institute for Public Policy – “Options for Higher Education Tuition Growth Factors.”  

[4]  2017 GET Actuarial Report

[5] Dream Ahead Investment Options: Year of enrollment portfolios

John Chesbrough
john@trailfp.com

I am a financial planner and investment manager. I also am the owner of a fee-only, independent financial advisory firm called Trail Financial Planning. I enjoy working with people who care for others and their community – parents, firefighters, therapists, doctors, nurses, and teachers. I may be spotted at through my blog or on the many winding trails of Whatcom County. To learn more, or contact me directly, please visit my firm's website: www.trailfp.com.