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The 411 on 529s: Top 10 college savings plans

The state of college savings plans
Eri Morita | Photodisc | Getty Images

Raising kids and stressed over how you'll ever afford college tuition? With average annual tuition and fees at four-year public colleges for out-of-state students already at more than $22,000, according to the College Board—and the average rate at private institutions topping $30,000—you're not alone in worrying. But a 529 savings plan can help. Available in all 50 states, 529 savings plans let parents and prospective students save today, tax-free, for tomorrow's higher-education expenses.

These plans, much like 401(k) or IRA retirement schemes, invest savings (often in mutual funds) so they grow—again, tax-free—over time, often with risk levels tied to beneficiaries' ages. In other words, the closer to the first day on campus, the more conservative the portfolio becomes. Americans had invested more than $220.6 billion in 529 college savings plans as of the second quarter of 2014, according to research and consulting firm Strategic Insight.

The website Savingforcollege.com publishes a quarterly list of the top-performing state 529 plans nationwide. The choice of state 529 plan and school attended is often not tied to residency; for example, in many cases savers often live in, say, New York, opt to save in a California 529 and then attend school in Texas. Here are the Top 10 state 529 plans, based on 10-year investment performance as of June 30, according to Savingforcollege.com. (Savingforcollege.com compared the reported investment performance of a subset of portfolios from each 529 savings plan. The lower the "percentile," the better the ranking.)

By Kenneth Kiesnoski, CNBC.com
Updated
3 Nov. 2014
Originally posted 11 Feb. 2014

10. Virginia: Virginia529 inVEST
Fife-and-drum corps of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Image source: Cameron Davidson | Virginia Tourism

"Virginia529 inVEST state-administered 529 savings program features a mix of different mutual funds and separately-managed accounts in its age-based and static portfolio options. "

Percentile: 42.23

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

9. Nevada: The Vanguard 529 Savings Plan
Area 51 border and warning sign stating that "photography is prohibited" and that "use of deadly force is authorized".
Wikimedia Commons

"Nevada 's Vanguard 529 Savings Plan is administered by Ascensus College Savings but carries the Vanguard brand and features a wide offering of Vanguard mutual funds in its age-based and static portfolio options. Accounts can be linked to the Upromise rewards service. "

Percentile: 40.96

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Area 51 border and warning sign, Nevada

8. Maryland: College Savings Plans of Maryland-College Investment Plan
Maryland Blue crabs
Image request: Maryland Office of Tourism, Film, and the Arts

"T. Rowe Price manages the College Savings Plans of Maryland-College Investment Plan and and utilizes its mutual funds in age-based and static portfolio options. "

Percentile: 40.24

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Chesapeake blue crabs, Maryland.

7. Nevada: USAA 529 College Savings Plan
Showgirls at famous Las Vegas welcome sign
Image source: Las Vegas News Bureau

"Nevada's USAA 529 College Savings Plan is available to the general public and features age-based and static porfolio options utilizing USAA mutual funds. Accounts can be linked to the Upromise rewards service. "

Percentile: 38.16

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Las Vegas Strip, Paradise, Nev.

6. Kansas: Schwab 529 College Savings Plan
Roping cattle at Moore Ranch in Bucklin, Kansas.
Source: Travel Kansas

"The Kansas Schwab 529 College Savings Plan is available through discount broker Charles Schwab and managed by American Century. The Plan utilizes a variety of mutual fund families in its age-based and static portfolio options. Accounts can be linked to the Upromise rewards service. "

Percentile: 37.55

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Moore Ranch, Bucklin, Kan.

5. New York: New York's 529 College Savings Program-Direct Plan
The Adirondack high peaks region in upstate New York.
Sammetsfan | Wikimedia Commons

"The team of Ascensus College Savings and The Vanguard Group manages New York's 529 College Savings Program -- Direct Plan. It features age-based and static portfolio options utilizing Vanguard mutual funds. Accounts can be linked to the Upromise rewards service. "

Percentile: 36.35

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Adirondack Mountains, Essex County, New York

4. Louisiana: START Saving Program
Mardi Gras float, New Orleans
Image source: Jay Combe | New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau

"The START Saving Program requires Louisiana residency to participate. It is subsidized by the state, resulting in no costs to the participant above the underlying fund costs. Vanguard funds and the State Treasurer's fixed income fund are utilized in the age-based and static portfolio options. "

Percentile: 36.24

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Mardi Gras, New Orleans.

3. Alaska: University of Alaska College Savings Plan
Bull moose, Alaska
Image source: Roy Neese | Visit Anchorage

"The University of Alaska College Savings Plan is a direct-sold 529 savings plan. The Program features both enrollment-based and static portfolios, along with an additional portfolio called the ACT Portfolio providing special benefits to future University of Alaska students along with a very low expense ratio. Alaska residency is not required to participate in this T. Rowe Price-managed program. "

Percentile: 23.81

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Bull moose, Alaska.

2. Utah: Utah Educational Savings Plan (UESP) Trust
Arches National Park, Utah
Image source: Douglas Pulsipher

"The Utah Educational Savings Plan (UESP) state-administered 529 savings program utilizes Vanguard and Dimensional mutual funds, the State Treasurer's fixed-income fund, and an FDIC-insured account in its five different age-based options and nine static portfolio options. "

Percentile: 23.64

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Arches National Park, Utah.

1. Alaska: T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan
Trekking in Alaska’s Eagle River
Image source: Ken Graham Photography | Visit Anchorage

"T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, the nationally-branded version of Alaska's direct-sold 529 savings program mirrors the University of Alaska College Savings Plan but lacks the ACT Portfolio found in the UA program. The enrollment-based and static portfolios available in this program utilize T. Rowe Price mutual funds. "

Percentile: 22.72

Source: Savingforcollege.com. Pictured: Trekking in Alaska's Eagle River .