While I love college football, I’m not a pro football fanatic by any means. I do enjoy a few good pro games each season – and am so glad those painful pre-season games are behind us! Yet I’m always intrigued by how the coach will play their star players for maybe the first quarter and then usher in a gaggle of no-name back-ups to finish it out. It makes for must-snore TV.

I know it’s for good reason – they want to keep their starters healthy, evaluate their second and third stringers, etc. But I wonder if they don’t go with their best line-up, how will they really know what level of talent they’ll have on the field once the real season starts?

I liken this to what I learned from the recent results from surveys by the Plan Sponsor Council of America. I realized that the 401(k) plans were largely outscoring 403(b) plans in some key plan features. See the numbers in the table below:

Plan Feature

403(b) Results

401(k) Results

Auto enrollment



Auto escalate



Roth deferral feature available in plan



Participants who make Roth deferrals



What I concluded is, like the coaches who are “holding back” their best players for the regular season, maybe 403(b) plan sponsors are hesitating to include essential key features in the line-up that could make their plan more robust over time. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for.

For example, for the auto enroll/auto escalate features, plan sponsors of non-profits don’t seem to want to make the decision for participants, and are concerned with additional administrative burden. Financial professionals can help point out that the opt-out provisions are clearly communicated to participants, so nobody has to do anything, but it’s a great strategy to help overcome inertia.

Additionally, for the Roth deferral, different participants may have different tax preferences, so why not offer both? When you give participants choices, what is there to lose?

To me, these PSCA results serve as somewhat of a pre-season poll to determine whether you will have a winning retirement plan. And it’s an opportunity for advisors to help 403(b) plan sponsors step up their game for the upcoming enrollment season.

Lots of football jargon there, I know – but it helps me get my 403(b) plan game face on.


Friedman is the tax-exempt national practice leader with the Principal Financial Group, an investment management and retirement leader. A noted expert on 403(b) plan design, he has been consulting with tax-exempt organizations for over 20 years and has been in the retirement plan business since 1986. This blog originally ran on The Principal blog. Follow Aaron on Twitter @1AaronFriedman1

Insurance products and plan administrative services are provided by Principal Life Insurance Company. Securities are offered through Princor Financial Services Corporation, 1-800-547-7754, Member SIPC and/or independent broker dealers.  Securities sold by a Princor® Registered Representative are offered through Princor.  Princor and Principal Life are members of the Principal Financial Group® (The Principal®), Des Moines, IA 50392.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access