Student loans total $1.26 trillion dollars in the United States, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Knowing all avenues to help pay for college should be a priority for students and their families. And 529 college savings plan are built to help save for higher education expenses.

However, in a new survey by brokerage firm Edward Jones, 75 percent of those polled didn’t know what a 529 plan was — a worse showing than last year, when the figure was 66 percent.

What you don’t know can hurt you.

A good option

“529 plans are the most tax-advantaged way of saving for college. Earnings accumulate on a tax-deferred basis and are entirely tax-free if used for qualified higher education expenses. Many states and Washington D.C. have state income tax deductions for contributions to the state’s 529 plan,” says Mark Kantrowitz, author, “Twisdoms About Paying For College.”

They’re flexible

Say your child doesn’t go to college, “They can be passed to another family member with no penalty,” says Michael Lee, managing partner of Tiger Wealth Management in Darien, Connecticut.

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They also have less impact on your student’s chances of getting financial aid than a custodial account because they are considered the parents’ assets, not the student’s, points out Joseph Orsolini, a certified financial planner with College Aid Planners in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Interested? Learn more at www.collegesavings.org.

What you should know before investing

Says Liz Miller, president of Summit Place Financial Advisors in Summit, New Jersey, “The investment choices can be limited, fees can be higher than average, and some plans’ performance has lagged behind other choices investors could have made outside the plans, even after paying capital gains taxes.”