NEPC Survey: Amid Pressure, Defined Contribution Plans Seeking Flexible Features, ESG

BOSTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–NEPC, LLC, one of the nation’s largest independent, research-driven investment consulting firms, today published its 2021 Defined Contribution (DC) Plan Trends and Fee Survey. This is the 16th annual version of the survey, which examines current plan investment trends, features, and innovations across major sectors, and how these plans have evolved over the years.

Respondents to the 2021 survey represent $230 billion in aggregate assets and 1.6 million plan participants. The data helps show how increasing market pressure is transforming DC plan strategies.

“Because the Great Resignation placed immense stress on the retirement ecosystem, flexible features and purpose-driven investment options are now deal-breakers and deal-makers,” said Bill Ryan, Partner and NEPC’s Head of Defined Contribution (DC) Solutions. “This survey helps illustrate how plan sponsors are looking for consultation beyond simple ESG negative screening and TDF ‘best practices.’ Plans are looking for partners to advise them on new opportunities in 2022 and beyond.”

The data also helps showcase an increasing allocation to target date funds (TDFs):

TDFs continue to be the turnkey solution. In 2011, 28% of respondents had plan assets invested in TDFs compared to 44% in 2021. 95% of 2021 respondents are using TDFs as the plan default, reducing the importance of the Core Menu.

Menus are moving toward index funds: 38% of plans currently offer index target date funds and 70% of those plans offer a “tier” of three or more index funds in their core menu. The median percentage of plan assets invested in index funds is 40%.

“The significant uptake of target date funds is helping to transform the market in meaningful ways,” said Ryan. “Investment managers are now evolving their TDF offerings to include payout features or spending guidance.”

While the survey foreshadows how impending US regulatory updates could lead to increased adoption of retirement income and ESG investment options in 2022, the data from 2021 highlights current gaps in guaranteed lifetime income and ESG menu options. While nearly all respondents currently offer the makings of a “retirement tier,” most plans lack an option providing guaranteed lifetime income.

NEPC’s Defined Contribution (DC) Practice Group will discuss the survey’s findings, including an analysis of plan fees, during a webinar on Thursday, February 17, 2022. Those interested in hearing how DC consultants are advising plans to address emerging opportunities can register for the webinar here.

Full results of the 16th Annual Defined Contribution (DC) Plan Trends and Fee Survey can be downloaded here.


NEPC is an independent investment consultant and private wealth advisor, serving over 400 retainer clients and $1.4 trillion in total assets. Combining a proprietary research team dedicated to the long-term challenges facing investors with our unique client-centric model, NEPC builds forward-looking investment portfolios for institutional investors and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. To learn more about NEPC, visit


Laura Nascimento