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State-run 529 college savings plans are getting better.

They're reducing fees, improving investment options and reporting better performance. These programs, which allow parents and others to invest in tax-free accounts to pay for college, are benefiting from closer supervision by many of the states, which are negotiating better terms with the investment companies that administer them. For the first time, no plan wound up in Morningstar's "bottom" rank in the research company's most recent review.

"The days of really stinky investments embedded in 529s are over," said Laura Pavlenko Lutton, the editorial director for Morningstar. "The industry's really improving."

That said, there remain big differences among the plans, particularly when it comes to fees. The most expensive plans (Kansas' adviser-sold version of LearningQuest, New Jersey's Franklin Templeton 529 College Savings Plan and Alaska's John Hancock Freedom 529) cost investors seven times more than the cheapest plans (the Utah Educational Savings Plan and New York's 529 College Savings Program).

Costs matter -- a lot. The more expensive an investment is, the less likely it is to outperform over the long run, Morningstar analysis has shown. In the 529 world, high fees were often coupled with poor performance, as some high-cost program administrators larded their plans with "weak sister" funds that trailed their peers.

Residents of states that offered tax breaks for 529 contributions once had to hold their noses and invest in bad plans. That's because a state tax break was assumed to be big enough to offset a plan's downsides. That's because the tax break was usually assumed to be big enough to offset the plan's downsides.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Today, everyone has better options available, but you have to know what they are if you want to take advantage. Here's what you need to know.

Start with your tax situation

Whether or not you get a tax incentive helps determine where you should invest:

  • Most states that tax incomes offer some kind of tax incentive for investing in a 529 plan. (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming have no state income taxes and therefore no tax break.)
  • The exceptions to the rule are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, all of which have a state income tax but none of which offer a tax break. (New Hampshire and Tennessee tax only dividend and interest income.)
  • Residents of three states -- Kansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania -- get a tax break if they invest in any state's plan. The other states with tax breaks require residents to stick with their in-state plans.
  • Most states with tax breaks allow residents to deduct their contributions, up to certain limits, from their taxable income. (You can see details of each state's tax break here.) Three states -- Indiana, Utah and Vermont -- offer tax credits, which directly reduce tax bills. Indiana's is the most generous tax benefit by far: Residents get an annual credit worth 20% of the first $5,000 of 529 contributions, which allows them to subtract up to $1,000 from their state tax bills

No reason to stay put? Go for the best

If your state doesn't give you a tax incentive or doesn't require you to invest in your own state's plan to get it, then you might as well invest in one of Morningstar's top-rated plans that are sold directly to investors (rather than through an adviser). These include:

  • Alaska's T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan and the Maryland College Investment Plan. These are good choices for investors who want active management and are willing to be more aggressive. Both of these T. Rowe plans "are built upon a chassis of well-executed funds," Morningstar says, but it notes that expense ratios are higher and that the aged-based options' asset allocations are heavier on equities than are other direct-sold plans, which rely more on index funds.
  • Ohio's CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan. Morningstar says "there's something for everyone" in a plan that offers managers Vanguard, Pimco, Oppenheimer and General Electric. You can find such variety elsewhere, but this plan distinguishes itself with low fees.
  • Nevada's Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan. This is the go-to plan for those of us who eschew active management in favor of index funds at low, low cost. The plan requires a $3,000 initial contribution; if you don't have that handy, consider Utah's plan.
  • The Utah Educational Savings Plan. Again, Vanguard index funds, and now with new, lower prices. Plus, there's more control as an investor, if you want it: "The plan's new set-it-once asset-allocation tool allows savers to dictate a mix of investments to change every year as a child nears college," Morningstar notes. "Not every saver needs that extra capability, however, and the plan's other options are solid."
  • Another plan made Morningstar's list of top programs: Virginia's CollegeAmerica 529 Savings Plan. This fund is sold only through advisers and is the country's largest plan, with nearly $30 billion in assets. I think most investors are better off in direct-sold plans, but if you're using a financial adviser, you'll probably do best in this low-cost plan that "features high-quality investments run by risk-aware, proven investors," according to Morningstar.