529 Web Sites Have Room to Grow Yet

March 6, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - All college savings programs are not created equal, nor are the Web sites that support them, according to a new survey by management consulting firm kasina.

The firm considered 62 different Web sites associated with various college savings programs, also called 529 plans.   Among the criteria associated with the top 529 plan Web sites, those programs included the following trend setting features, according to the firm:

  • 61% – allow an application to be submitted and an account funded online
  • 59% – allow investors to purchase funds online
  • 73% – have college savings calculators
  • 39% – have fund prospectuses available online
  • 24% – have timely (e.g., within the past quarter) market commentary available
  • 34% – have fund prices updated within the past 24 hours

According to kasina’s standards, the top 529 plan Web sites were Fidelity Investments, Schoolhouse Capital, and Strong Investments, all of which offered all of the above features.  

As for areas of potential improvement for the industry, kasina noted the following:

  • Search engine – just 14% of the survey sampling have this feature
  • Financial advisor referral tool – just 5% currently offer this feature
  • Multiple languages – just 3% currently offer content in multiple languages
  • Document e-delivery – 14% currently allow investors to receive electronic delivery of shareholder-specific documents
  • What’s new – 80% of the sites evaluated do not have a section that outlines new additions to the 529 site

While most sites do allow investors to check account balances and statements online, nearly 30% still lack this functionality, according to the study.   Nearly three-quarters (73%) allow email to be sent through the site.

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of the 529 sites provide links to the asset manager’s main site – but only about half (52%) of asset manager sites provide a link to the 529 site.

Kasina examined the sites in terms of branding, content, online services, usability, and Web technology.   Using a 44-question the firm narrowed the list down from 62 to 15 finalist Web sites.