College Funding

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future college costs. 529 plans, legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” are sponsored by states, state agencies, or educational institutions and are authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Distributions from 529 college savings plans, tax-advantaged accounts for secondary education, can be used to pay for school – but not all expenses can be paid for via 529s. Expenses deemed required by the Internal Revenue Service for attendance at a given school are known as Qualified Higher Education Expenses.

The tax penalty for withdrawals not used for a qualified education expense is 10 percent on the total amount, plus the account owner must pay income tax on any money earned on the investments within the 529 plan account.

“Education loans are not considered qualified higher education expenses for a 529 college savings plan under current law. Thus, if you used loans to pay for expenses for which you claimed the AOTC, you cannot subsequently use a tax-free distribution from a 529 college savings plan to pay down that debt.

Parents can put money in a 529 plan for the benefit of their child - and retain control. Further, a 529 plan is tax-free if used for a qualifying college. UGMA/UTMA accounts generally hurt financial aid eligibility much more than 529 plans.

Money saved in a 529 plan can also be used to pay expenses associated with college or other post-secondary training institutions.  While funds from a 529 account can be used to pay for expenses required for college, not all expenses qualify.

Parents (and other relatives) who fund Section 529 plans need to be very conscious of what constitutes a qualified higher education expense and what doesn’t. The following table lists qualifying higher education expenses.

Type of Fee Full-Time Student at an Eligible Institution Part-Time Student at an Eligible Institution
Tuition Yes Yes
Room and board (paid directly to educational institutions) Yes If enrolled half time or more, yes; otherwise, no
Room and board (paid directly to other landlord and grocery
Yes, to extent allowed by budget amount set by school If enrolled half time or more, yes, to extent allowed by budget
amount set by school; otherwise, no
Fees (as required by the institution) Yes Yes
Books, supplies, and equipment (including computers) Yes, to extent allowed by budget amount set by school Yes, to extent allowed by budget amount set by school
Expenses of a special-needs beneficiary necessary for
enrollment at an eligible institution
Yes (regulations defining qualifying expenses are still
Yes (regulations defining qualifying expenses are still

All eligible schools are now required to provide you with the price of what you will pay them directly (tuition, fees, and often room and board) and the total cost of an academic year. This is called the budget.

The amount of qualified expenses you may be able to use Section 529 plan distributions to pay for is limited if you fall into any of these categories:

  • If your qualifying student receives tax-free educational assistance (outright grants and scholarships), the amount of expenses that would otherwise qualify will be reduced by the amount of the tax-free aid.

  • If your qualifying student is the beneficiary of a Coverdell Education Savings Account and receives distributions from that plan, all qualified expenses need to be divided proportionately between the two plans.

  • If you want to take the Hope and/or Lifetime Learning Credits on your income tax return, you need to use taxable income to pay for at least a portion of your student’s qualifying expenses.

Distributions made from Section 529 plans for payment of qualifying educational expenses are free from federal income tax. The federal government has also built in many safeguards to make certain that you don’t abuse its kindness:

  • Using plan distributions to pay nonqualifying expenses: If the designated beneficiary takes a distribution but doesn’t use it to pay qualified expenses, the accrued earnings on that distribution will be taxed at normal income tax rates, plus an additional 10 percent.

  • Terminating a plan, because the designated beneficiary chose not to continue his or her education or because some money is still left in the plan after completing that education: When a plan is terminated (rather than rolled over into another plan or beneficiary), the earned income that’s distributed, whether to the designated beneficiary or the plan owner, along with the original contribution amounts is taxable. In addition, it’s subject to the 10 percent additional penalty.

  • Distributing funds on account of the death of the designated beneficiary: If you need to distribute funds to a beneficiary’s estate or to someone other than the designated beneficiary, due to the death of that beneficiary, the earned income portion of the distribution is taxable; however, no additional 10 percent tax is assessed.

  • Making distributions due to the longterm disability or impending death of the designated beneficiary: The IRS now allows distributions from Section 529 plans to be made to terminally ill beneficiaries and to beneficiaries with a long-term disability. The earned income portion of these distributions is taxable, but no 10 percent additional tax is assessed.

  • Using the Hope or Lifetime Learning Credits: If you use certain qualified educational expenses to qualify for the Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits, those expenses will no longer qualify for tax-free treatment, even if you paid for them from your Section 529. The earnings portion will be taxed, with no additional 10 percent tax.

  • Receiving education benefits that are excludable from gross income: If you receive qualified scholarships, veteran’s assistance, funds from employer tuition-reimbursement plans, or other tax-free benefits, the earnings on Section 529 plan distributions are taxable only if the amount of the 529 plan distribution is less than or equal to the amount of other tax-free educational assistance. There is no 10 percent additional tax.

This information is not intended to be tax or legal advice, and it may 
not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. 
You are encouraged to seek tax or legal advice from an independent 
professional advisor.