Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Smallest State’s Big Move to Build College Savings

January 23, 2015
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The Smallest State’s Big Move to Build College Savings
It is now easier for Rhode Island parents to start saving for college within the first days of their babies' lives. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
It's literally as simple as putting an 'X' in a box.

Newborn infants in Rhode Island will leave the hospital with two things: a birth certificate and bank account.

Starting this month, the Ocean State is streamlining an existing college savings program known as CollegeBoundBaby. Since the initiative’s start in 2010, enrolled infants each receive $100 in a 529 savings plan from Rhode Island, but it’s been highly underutilized due to a unwieldy application that required parents to supply multiple pages of information and pick an investment strategy. As a result, only 400 families enrolled, according to the Providence Journal.

But now, parents can now sign up the day their child is born by simply checking a box on the birth certificate form, a small fix that the newly elected governor hopes will boost the program’s reach.

“The system now requires parents to take the initiative to open an account,” says Governor Gina Raimondo, the state’s first female governor. “With this program, before the parents leave the hospital, all they have to do is put an X in the right box and boom, the account will be set up.”

Here’s why this simplification matters: More than one-third of all Americans have no money in savings and even fewer have funds stored away for college. Many low-income youth will leave college burdened by debt, if they choose to attend at all. State governments like Connecticut and a cluster of nonprofits are aiming to change that by incentivizing families to open 529 accounts by fronting the initial seed deposit. (It’s worth noting that there can be cons to putting money in a 529 plan, so families should always look at the specifics before investing.)

The small cash incentive not only provides some economic certainty, it also forces the parents to think about long-term financial planning and sets goals to which young people can aspire. It’s proven to work. Studies show children with dedicated savings for higher education are seven times as likely to attend college. (For those not seeking a B.A., money in 529 accounts can be used to pay for trade, technical or vocational school; if not used by age 25, it reverts back to a state’s education fund.) Even beyond the benefits that come with a college degree like higher job earnings, one study found that just having a bank account aids children’s social and emotional development and correlates with optimism and decreased depression for the children’s mothers.

“From the research, we know that kids who have a college savings account, regardless of the amount, are much more likely to get an education beyond high school and graduate,” says Raimondo, a Democrat who previously served as Rhode Island’s state treasurer. “Some think it is because they have the money. The real reason is they know they are college material. It changes the way they think about themselves.”

Because the underlying principle is that families can advance themselves through smart fiscal planning, college savings accounts have bipartisan appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, Andrea Levere, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, notes in a New York Times op-ed. The accounts have a number of models — publicly funded, donor-supported or a mix — but so far, they haven’t taken off widely: only about 200,000 young kids have the potential to receive seed money for one instead of the millions who should have access, Levere says.

Rhode Island’s streamlining of the process could improve the national model. According to Margaret Clancy, policy director at Washington University’s Center for Social Development in St. Louis, where researchers first posited college accounts in 1991, this initiative makes Rhode Island one of only three states promising universal savings accounts. Nevada starts every kindergartner with a $50 deposit, and Maine recently switched their $500 grants from opt-in to opt-out, automatically applying to every infant.

“Everybody thinks their child will grow up to be President of the United States or go to college when they’re born, but what we see is that at age 4, those goals have decreased in a lot of people’s mindsets,” Clancy tells NationSwell. Children never develop a “college-bound identity,” then financial and academic preparation fall by the wayside. Universal sign-ups, which have proven to enroll 18 times as many families as would sign up voluntarily, Clancy notes, are the most efficient way to set babies crawling in the right direction.

Raimondo admits this largely bureaucratic change is “hard and unsexy work,” but she believes “it’s going to really change people’s behavior. Small changes like this can have big, powerful impacts.”

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