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The mutual fund industry has 523 answers to the question about what it's doing to help fund higher education.

That's the number of open-end mutual funds specifically designed as "529 college funding" vehicles. In fact, the industry could honestly claim nearly triple that number of solutions for college funding. Since many of the funds have multiple share "classes," there are around 1,500 total selections available to investors.

The aggregate net assets of these specialized funds is $54.8 billion.

These investment plans are named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. They allow savings earmarked for higher education to accrue free from federal taxes. In many cases, they're also free from state taxes, so long as withdrawals are used for eligible college expenses.

Each 529 plan is sponsored by a state or an agency of a state. Every state, as well as the District of Columbia, sponsors at least one type of "529" plan. Investors are not limited to plans sponsored by their respective home states.

The offerings include virtually every equity, hybrid and fixed-income investment objective. The "529" funds with multiple classes of shares offer sales charge options that include front-end loads, contingent deferred sales charges and level loads.

Some of the college savings funds offer as many as seven different classes of shares.

The proliferation of "529" funds has resulted in "target maturity" plans similar to those offered to people investing for retirement. When the anticipated matriculation date is years in the future, these "target" funds invest in securities anticipated to have greater returns than most but at higher levels of risk. Over time, as they approach their "target" dates, they move to investments with steadier growth but generally lower expected returns.

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Whereas Fidelity Management names its target maturity "529" funds by embedding the anticipated time of need in a fund's name (e.g.,

Fidelity NH Portfolio 2015

), for Putnam Funds, the recipient's birth year appears in the name of its offerings (e.g.,

Putnam College Adv Aggr 2003 A

-- with caution needed if your offspring turns into a prodigy who earns her M.D. at the age of 13).

The American Funds group, as can be seen in the accompanying table of "529" college fund management companies, has attracted more "529" assets than the other college fund managers, even without nearly as many portfolios or fund classes as some of the others.

In addition, the 11 largest portfolios in the nearby list of the 25 largest "529" funds are all from American Funds. The firm manages 14 of the 25 biggest "529" offerings.

Richard Widows is a senior financial analyst for Ratings. Prior to joining, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.