Studies Support Pairing 401(k) Auto-escalation with Auto-enrollment

Ali N. Barnes

Auto-enrolling 401(k) plan participants without also incorporating an auto-escalation feature might be a counterproductive exercise. J.P. Morgan Asset Management survey data suggests that average 401(k) plan deferral rates have been trending downward even though more employers are adopting auto-enrollment. The apparent culprit: low auto-deferral rates.

Stats tell the story

From 2012 to 2014, the average annual contribution rate was 7.2%. This is down slightly from the 7.4% average in the prior two-year period, and well below the 8% average during 2007 to 2008.

Even though 45% of surveyed employers auto-enroll new participants, just 31% have auto-escalation features built in. One interesting note from the study: For plans with at least $200 million in assets, the numbers are considerably higher — 62% of these high-asset plans have automatic enrollment and 48% use auto-escalation clauses.

The most common auto-enrollment default deferral rate is only 3%, according to the most recent Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA) survey. Participants who defaulted into such a low deferral rate generally do not increase it significantly. With typical annual auto-increase increments of only 1%, it will take new employees several years to begin deferring at reasonable levels, and many more to reach the 15% that DCIIA sees as ideal.

The DCIIA survey reveals impressive deferral rates for plans that both auto-enroll and auto-escalate participants. “Plan sponsors who offer both automatic enrollment and automatic contribution escalation have over twice as many participants with retirement savings rates over 15% (14% of respondents) as those that do not offer both (6% of respondents),” according to the survey.

Change is in the air

So why don’t plan sponsors implement these features? According to the survey, plan sponsors with less than $50 million in plan assets were concerned about complaints from participants (28%) and feared it would be seen as paternalistic (18%). And a whopping 31% have never considered using it.

But the DCIIA study concluded that, when properly implemented, automatic features can make a positive difference. Contact your benefits specialist to learn how to use both auto-enrollment and auto-escalation clauses to help benefit your employees.

© 2016

Ali N. Barnes

Ali N. Barnes


Ali N. Barnes, CPA, is a senior manager in Yeo & Yeo’s Alma office. She has 11 years of experience in audits of employee retirement benefit plans and providing audit services for government entities, school districts and nonprofit organizations. She is a member of the firm’s Pension Services Group, Government Services Group and the Audit Services Group. Contact Ali via email at or call 989.463.6108.