Research published this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that student loan debt hit a record $1.31 trillion in 2016, with a $31 billion increase in the fourth quarter alone. But the constant media attention being directed at student loan debt is having at least one good consequence.

“It’s causing more people to think about it and they are finally acting,” Steve Dombrower, senior vice president of advisor strategy and investment management at Ascensus College Savings (ACS), tells Financial Advisor. ACS provides program management and administration services for 34 plans across 18 states with more than $80 billion in assets under administration.

The numbers won’t make a noticeable dent in the student loan debt crisis. Still, he says, “We’re definitely headed in the right direction.” The average account balance for beneficiaries age 16 to 17 in Ascensus-run 529 college savings plans rose 33 percent between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, from $22,302 to $29,653, he says.

According to the College Using an automatic investing feature is one of the best things families with 529 plans can do,Board, the average total published cost for an in-state public school (tuition and fees and room and board) is $20,090 in 2016-17. The average net total price -- what students actually pay at these schools after financial aid -- is $14,210.

Dombrower attributes a sizeable chunk of the growth in ACS’s 529 account balances to “recurring contributions” made through an automatic investment plan feature. Just about every 529 plan in the industry offers this feature, including those managed by ACS, he says.

As of mid-February, a recurring contribution was set up on more than 1.26 million ACS 529 accounts (out of its total 3.8 million 529 accounts). ACS has seen an increased use of the automatic investment plan feature in more of its plans since it revamped its plan websites to make them responsive to the type of device being used and renamed the feature “Recurring Contributions,” he says.

In 2011, ACS took in more than $4.5 billion in total contributions, 29 percent of that through a recurring contribution. Total contributions for 2016 grew to $7.8 billion, with about 32 percent through a recurring contribution. “We see that number continuing to increase,” he says.

Using an automatic investing feature is one of the best things families with 529 plans can do, says Dombrower, “whether it’s $200 a month, $25 a month or something in between, or even more.” Recurring contributions let account holders take advantage of dollar-cost averaging, which over longer periods of time can potentially enhance returns, he says.

Parents who see meaningful balances on their quarterly 529 statements also “end up trying to do more,” he says. “Success breeds success.”

“I’m living proof it works,” says Dombrower. He and his wife set up 529 accounts with automatic contributions of $200 a month for their two children when they were born. When his older child enrolled in an out-of-state public university last fall, his 529 account balance exceeded 75 percent of the school’s published four-year cost of attendance (tuition and fees, room and board, and books). He was also awarded a merit scholarship.

“This is a kid whose account suffered the Asian currency contagion of the late 1990s, the tech wreck of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008 and he still ended up with 85 percent of his four years of college paid for after merit money,” says Dombrower. “With investing, it’s time in the market, not timing.”

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