Education and health care retirement plans are using more target-date funds and Roth features in their plans, according to the latest 403(b) plan sponsor survey from the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

Specifically, the survey found that nearly three-fourths (72.5%) of plan sponsors offer target-date funds as an investment option last year, an increase from 69.1% in 2010. And among the 14.9% of 403(b) plans that offer automatic enrollment, the most common default investment options are target-date funds (47.2%), followed by lifestyle funds (26.4%).

The survey also revealed that the number of 403(b) plans permitting Roth after-tax contributions has doubled in the past four years. In 2011, 21.7% of 403(b) plans allowed Roth contributions, up from 16.9% in 2010 and 10.9% in 2007.

Other key findings include:

* The percentage of plan sponsors who don't know their ERISA status is down from 10% in 2010 to 6.8% in 2011.

* Almost 15% of organizations have an automatic enrollment feature, up from 12.3% in 2010 and 11.5% in 2009.

* Catch-up contributions for participants age 50 and over are permitted in 93.3% of plans. Just over 13% of eligible participants made catch-up contributions in 2011.

* Seventy-seven percent of plans allow participants to take hardship withdrawals. The percentage of plan participants taking hardship withdrawals when permitted (1.6%) remained the same in 2011 as it was in 2010.

* Just over 24% of organizations offer investment advice to participants. An average of 20.4% of participants used investment advice when it was offered.

* Plans offer an average of 27 funds for organization contributions and an average of 28 funds for participant contributions. Almost 22% of plans have 26 to 50 funds and 10.9% have more than 50. Eighty-two percent of organizations make contributions to the plan; nearly 40% making matching contributions only.

* Twenty percent fewer sponsors are uncertain over whether they have an investment policy statement.

* The use of email communication has increased (at 65% in 2011 vs. 59.5% in 2010), as has use of seminars/workshops (53% in 2011 vs. 41.8% in 2010). These increases likely reflect participant preferences and cost-efficiency trends, the PSCA said.

* Nearly 40% of plan sponsors made changes to the investment lineup in the last year, and nearly 26% plan a comprehensive redesign in the next 12 months.

"The engagement of 403(b) plan sponsors is much higher than in years past," says David Wray, president of the PSCA. "They're adjusting to the new regulatory environment, and show a much better understanding of ERISA. In many ways, sponsors of 403(b) plans are catching up to the 401(k) system."

Hung Tran writes for Financial Planning, a SourceMedia publication.

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