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One college bets big on 529 college savings

Washington College
Source: Washington College
Washington College

Every dollar saved for college reduces the amount you'll need to borrow — and at one college, those savings will soon net extra scholarship money.

Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, announced Monday a unique program to match families' tuition payments made from a qualifying 529 college savings plan or Educational Savings Account, up to $2,500 per year. The first Saver Scholarships will be awarded during the 2017-18 academic year, based on tuition payments made in 2016-17.

"To my knowledge, this is the first program that matches the use of college savings to pay for college," said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, a college and scholarship search site.


The Saver Scholarships match is based on tuition payments made the prior academic year, meaning the students could receive the grant starting their sophomore year. To qualify, students must be enrolled at the college full time and be drawing funds from a 529 or ESA account that was established at least three years before their enrollment.

"Unfortunately, participation in 529 plans is low," said Washington College President Sheila Bair, former chairwoman of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "We hope to inspire families to save."

Bair said it's not yet clear how many of the private liberal arts college's 1,450 undergraduates will qualify for the new scholarship, or with how much of a match. During the 2014-15 academic year, the average Washington College undergraduate received $22,245 in grant or scholarship aid, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Saver Scholarships isn't the college's only unique program to cut costs. Last year, Bair announced a tuition freeze, with the rate held at $42,844. This spring, she launched Dam the Debt, using donations to provide an average $2,630 grant in graduating seniors' last semester as an intended replacement for federally subsidized student loans.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans don't even know what a 529 college savings plan is, according to a May survey from investing firm Edward Jones. About half of families are stashing their college savings in general savings and checking accounts, a 2015 Sallie Mae survey found.


While 529 plan balances have grown, the median balance is just $14,005, according to financial firm Strategic Insight — not enough to cover even a year of in-state expenses at a public, four-year college. Plus, parents tend to tap into the accounts early to cover other bills.

It's too early to say whether Washington College's match will become trendy, Kantrowitz said.

"I don't know that other colleges would necessarily copycat this," he said.

Other options

But there are other college savings "matches" available.

Several states, including Colorado, Kansas and New Jersey, offer grants or match savings based on family contributions into 529 plan. (Applicants may also need to meet qualifications such as household income, residency and age of the account.) Some employers also offer matching contributions.

A scholarship match for savings can present some extra financial juggling for families when they pay their tuition bill, Kantrowitz said. Tuition paid with a tax-advantaged 529 fund or tax-free scholarship can't also count toward tuition paid for a tax credit.

"You may enter into a situation where there's too much money competing," he said.