By Paula Smith, Senior Vice President, Product Strategy and Development – Retirement and College Savings, Voya Investment Management

Having access to higher education has been a transformative experience that has profoundly shaped my life. The opportunity to obtain a college degree opened an endless world of possibilities for me. Although my school was only four hours from my urban neighborhood, it felt worlds away.  

Fundamentally, as parents plan and save for their child’s education, they hope that he or she will not only build a fulfilling career but gain valuable knowledge and skills and a deeper understanding of the world around them. Parents also hope their child will acquire lifelong friends along the way. As I reflect on my own life lessons from my higher education experience, these really stand out:  

Independence: While initially being responsible for running most aspects of your life on your own may seem daunting, ultimately, it is empowering and builds confidence. Simple things like getting to class, learning to navigate other people and situations, and managing my time independently were invaluable lessons.   

Budgeting and Saving: Most college students are pressed to stretch the dollar. Through many part-time and summer jobs and careful planning, I was able to manage day-to-day expenses and plan for a significant trip after graduation. I have carried this lesson throughout my life.

Love of Learning: The journey of intellectual growth is never-ending, and there will always be new horizons to explore, new mysteries to unravel, and new ways of understanding the world around us. That lifetime love of learning has been the personal and professional fuel that will continue to propel me. 

Perseverance: The most important life lesson from higher education is maintaining a long-term outlook in the face of challenges. Grit is about doing what it takes to achieve personal goals.  

Gratitude: While this lesson arrived a bit later than the others, I am profoundly grateful for those who helped along the way: those who awarded scholarships and provided aid, my school and professors, and my parents, grandparents, friends, and other relatives. We simply can’t do it alone.

As I started my career after graduating, I began working with retirement plans and their participants, which was a perfect fit for my skill set and what inspired me. Helping people set goals, work to achieve financial independence, and get on a path to retirement was incredibly rewarding for me.    

Shortly after, I learned about 529 plans and was immediately fascinated by the elegance of these programs—how contributions are made and invested and, ultimately, how they are used to help parents pay for their child’s education.   

The primary objective of a 529 plan is to help beneficiaries access higher education. These programs provide many benefits. They are easy to open and fund, offer strong tax benefits and incentives to help people meet their savings goals faster, and offer flexibility if educational plans should change. As college costs have continued to increase, leveraging a 529 plan early and with purpose makes college more attainable.  

These plans have come full circle with the new Roth IRA rollover provision within 529. They now offer both the ability to help fund a college education and (if money is left over) give the beneficiary a head start on retirement savings.  

Today, I find it particularly rewarding to engage with advisors and participants about saving for college. Higher education has many positive ripple effects, opening doors to fulfilling careers and transforming lives. I am honored to play a role in changing the lives of young people—just as my own life was transformed—and helping to ensure the dream of a college degree is within their reach.  

About the author:

Paula Smith is Senior Vice President, Product Strategy and Development – Retirement and College Savings for Voya Investment Management, a wholly owned subsidiary of Voya Financial.  Voya Investment Management serves as 529 Program Manager for the Wisconsin Tomorrow’s Scholar® 529 program and the Iowa IAdvisor program. She has over 20 years’ experience working with retirement plans and 529 programs.