As what's left of the American mainstream media looks out over the country's shattered financial landscape, among the big questions for plenty of families: How to pay for college during these Crisis Years? Many, including yours truly, have invested in 529 plans, run by states. We are promised responsible allocations, sensible fees, the money grows tax free, no federal taxes are due when withdrawing the money if using it to pay for college, and some states often a deduction along the way on state tax returns.
529's have taken huge hits in recent months, not surprisingly, along with every other type of investment that has stock market exposure. One big problem: operators of these plans don't understand accountability.
The Wall Street Journal points to several ugly examples of plans in some states that are way too aggressive. One expert quoted in the piece nails the problem: " ... the asset allocation for the 16- to 18-year-olds looks as if it was designed by the 5-year-olds." Meaning too often way, way too much in stocks, so close to the time-certain when families will need to withdraw the money to pay for college. And not only do these states ignore any Web-based engagement with users, they blow off the Wall Street Journal when it hunts for a basic explanation:
Officials in several states, including Maine, New Mexico and North Carolina, declined or didn't respond to requests for comment; nor did J.&W. Seligman & Co., which ran the riskiest portion of the North Carolina plan.
Talk about low-hanging fruit: Here is a corner of government that could very quickly benefit in big ways from engaging customers and potential customers by turning their Web presences into discussion and listening channels. That's not just because of the demand for more information on the type of content they deal with, meaning ways to save and pay for college over time. But also obviously because of the the type of highly-engaged, hyper-aware consumer who would be very willing to participate and share and activate around an energized effort here: parents.
To say nothing of course of such obviously horrendous media relations. A field in which it seems to me would offer this bit of basic tactical advice on day one: Call back the reporter from the Wall Street Journal, so you don't end up looking like a crook to the world.
Then learn about turning your staid, dull Web sites into something alive and active and interactive. Your customers and potential customers are getting wise.