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New SMART529 plan gives users more flexibility

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians who want to take advantage of the state's SMART529 college savings plans now have more flexibility to determine how much they want to save.

Under the original Pre-Paid Tuition program created by State Treasurer John Perdue 10 years ago, students who were beneficiaries of those pre-paid plans received payments each semester that were equal to the tuition and fees charged by West Virginia universities during that semester.

Buying those pre-paid plans typically required minimum monthly payments, which were often deducted from a parent's paycheck.

But under the SMART529 WV Direct plan -- approved by the West Virginia College Prepaid Tuition and Savings Program Board on Sept. 6 -- people can create college savings accounts that they can help manage themselves. Direct plan owners can decide how aggressive, or how conservative, they want their investment strategies to be.

The new "Smart Savings Match" program for lower-income families provides "a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $500 in each calendar year.

Under this program, the maximum total for any student is $2,500, based on $500 payments a year over five years.

To qualify for this program, the adjusted gross income of a family must be under $50,000 for one dependent, under $60,000 for two, under $70,000 for three and under $80,000 for four or more dependents.

Employers also can create matching SMART529 accounts for their own employees.

Children must be 12 or younger at the time these matching grants are approved. Individuals creating these accounts must be able to claim beneficiaries as their dependents on income tax returns.

New accounts, such as those in the recently created SMART529 Select program, can be opened with minimum payments of just $50. Subsequent payments can be made in any amount.

Savingforcollege.com, which analyzes investment performance figures for college savings plans in all 50 states, ranked West Virginia's plans as the fifth-best in the nation as of Sept. 30, said Perdue spokeswoman Kim Ward.

Kara Hughes, acting executive director of the state Board of Treasury Investments, said she and her husband created a West Virginia Direct Plan for their son Rocco, now 6 months old.

"As soon as he got his Social Security number, I got him signed up. With the way the economy is today, it is important to start saving now," Hughes said.

The SMART529 WV Direct pamphlet published by Perdue's office points out that, during the 2011-2012 academic year, it cost $15,218 for all college expenses for students attending a public university in West Virginia.

But 18 years from now, the pamphlet predicts, those costs will jump up to $39,463 a year.

Amy Hamilton, director of customer relations for Perdue's office, also is saving to pay college expenses for her daughter Rylee, a 7-year-old now attending Overbook Elementary School in Charleston.

Rylee, who wants to attend college and become a veterinarian, said she loves animals and birds, particularly peacocks.

"Her grandparents also put money into her account often," Amy Hamilton said.

Perdue said, "We want to get people to create plans for their children and grandchildren. We have a nice card you can put under a Christmas tree if you create a new account.

"I started the 529 college savings program in West Virginia back in 2002 so every person in this state would have an affordable way to save for higher education.

"The best way for our children to get ahead in life is through education. Most jobs today require some type of higher education or training."

People interested in more information can visit the SMART529 website or call 866-574-3542.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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