When Carolyn Hunter's twin grandsons were born six years ago, she wanted to give them something more than toys and clothes; she wanted to give them an education.
Although Hunter's gift seemed a little premature at the time, she decided to start saving for the two boys right away through the Utah Educational Savings Plan. Since then, Hunter has opened accounts for another grandson and granddaughter, contributing monthly to give the children a college nest egg.
"One of the things that grandparents do is we give children plastic and toys that need batteries — things that gather dust. This is a way to give these children a gift that will ensure a wonderful future," Hunter said.
Hunter's four grandchildren are just a few of the 68,000 college savings accounts opened under the Utah Education Savings Plan, which saw accounts grow by 27 percent last year and just wrapped up its busiest month of the year.
Utah residents opened about 3,400 new accounts for children and grandchildren in 2005, bringing the total assets in the Utah plan to about $1.3 billion. The plan, a 529 savings plan, also saw out-of-state investors growing by record numbers with 78 percent of 2005 investors coming from outside of Utah.
A commercial campaign launched by UESP earlier this year may have helped bring in high numbers in December, director Lynne Ward added. The final crunch to get a tax deduction of up to $3,120 per account also brings in new accounts and investors standing in line during December.
Grandparents, who make up 19 percent of account owners, often come in and open accounts for 20 grandchildren at a time, UESP spokeswoman Anna West said. Parents, who own 77 percent of the accounts, are now coming in to start saving as soon as children are born, which sometimes means lump sum donations or small $10 contributions on birthdays and Christmas, West said.
That growth is a signal to Ward that the word is getting out that saving now can mean avoiding student debt and having more choice in the future.
"If a young person has a college savings account ready for them when they're ready to go to college, they're more inclined to go to college," Ward said.
As tuition costs continue to go up, Ward said saving now for college is becoming a critical factor in whether Utah students are able to afford higher education. Figures from the Utah System of Higher Education show also show that since 2001, the average debt burden for four years of higher education has jumped 14 percent to $14,049.
For Hunter, having a small amount taken out of her paycheck each month seemed like a better option than having her grandchildren face interest rates and student debts that can often take years to pay off.
"If they can have this little bonus in advance it will make a big difference and motivate them to apply for Ivy League colleges or something bigger and better," she said. "Knowing they have this in their pocket will empower them."
Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell said the savings plan is even more critical for students now as tuition rates continue to increase each year. Although the Utah System of Higher Education has asked for more money for need-based loans for students, Kendell said the office is working to encourage parents and grandparents to save for the future.
College grants and federal loans may be the best option for some students, but Kendell said a savings account means interest-free money that can be used for tuition, books, housing and even computer equipment required for class.
"They're in a better position than taking out a loan because it's your money," he said. "We're trying to encourage everybody to get into the savings mode. I think there's so much more dependence on education these days. It's very difficult to be competitive in our world without some post-secondary education."
The popularity of the Utah plan has grown recently, West added, as families have become more aware of the tax deduction benefits, as well as Utah's low fees and no minimum requirements. The plan also allows money to be transferred to other relatives if the student in the original account gets a scholarship or decides not to go to college.
In addition, the account owner and the beneficiary do not have to live in Utah. The money can also be applied to college expenses at any university with federal aid programs, not just Utah schools.