Top Plans Buck Trends, Boost Participation

January 14, 2003 ( - Despite a tough market, a soft economy, and an ensuing drop in overall participation rates, some employers have been able to generate - and sustain - an extraordinary level of worker interest and participation in their retirement plans, according to PLANSPONSOR's annual listing of the Top 100 Defined Contribution Plans by participation rate.

The  Top 100 DC Plans honored this year listed the following keys to the success of their programs:


  • 52% – Company match   
  • 39% – Education efforts and communication of plan benefits
  • 27% – Attractive plan features (incl. Internet access, immediate vesting)
  • 27% – A well-educated, mature workforce
  • 16% – Automatic enrollment
  • 14% – Variety and quality of investment options

Smart Start

Significantly, more than half of the plans in the top 100 offered workers an opportunity to participate in the plan immediately, before their good intentions give way to other priorities.   Many 401(k) programs still require as much as a year of service prior to permitting workers to join the plan.

In a particularly encouraging note, employers also reported that younger employees (under age 35) are becoming more concerned with retirement, perhaps in part due to the strenuous communication and education efforts displayed by companies that will not take “No” for an answer when enrollment time comes.

Participation Ratings

Among survey respondents, the smallest plans in terms of assets reported the highest average participation rate, 96.3%, whereas the larger plans have a little less at 89.8% on average. This is true even though 100% of the plans with more than $500MM in assets offer a company match, and only 82% of the plans with less than $5MM in assets offer a company match.

The average participation rate among the Top 100 was 91.9%. The responses represent $77.5 billion in assets and a little more than 753,000 plan participants, making the average assets per participant $102,882.  

A company match is the most commonly offered plan feature, with 94% of the   companies contributing to the retirement pot. Company stock is offered as an option for 32% of respondents, while auto-enrollment and self-directed brokerage tie at 21%.