Better Together: Policies that Link Children’s Savings Accounts with Access Initiatives to Pave the Way to College

As the price of college continues to escalate, too many low- and moderate-income students are priced out of postsecondary education. For some, the full extent of the price of college is realized too late in their planning process to best leverage all the financial aid resources available to them. For others, the price seems so prohibitive that earning a college degree is not even considered a feasible aspiration. In an effort to overcome these challenges, states have long offered Qualified Tuition Plans, commonly called “529 plans,” which provide financial incentives for families to plan and save for their children’s college education. However, in light of the uneven distribution of benefits to higher-income families and the need to address equity gaps in college access and affordability, policy experts have urged reforms to better target savings incentives toward lower-income families.

In more recent years, cities and states across the country have started programs providing low-to moderate-income families with Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs)—long-term savings or investment accounts established for children and youth—to save for postsecondary education from early in life. When families are able to accumulate even small savings in CSAs after paying for basic needs, CSAs can be valuable tools to build students’ college expectations and help pay for college tuition and living expenses.

Though many existing CSA programs are specifically intended to be more inclusive than prior college savings incentives several programs seek additional strategies to engage underserved, low-income families more fully.

Recognizing the potential of CSAs to increase students’ opportunities for postsecondary education—as one part of the larger financial aid and financing challenge facing many families—the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) partnered with the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) to connect community leaders working on postsecondary access with CSA practitioners to explore program strategies for better serving low-income families and address college affordability challenges across the student attainment pipeline. In October 2016, IHEP and CFED hosted a roundtable discussion to connect these community leaders, practitioners, and other experts in the field. The convening highlighted the urgent need to address equity gaps in postsecondary access and affordability, identified promising strategies to better meet the needs of underserved, low-income families, and raised the question of how these strategies can be implemented to strengthen CSA programs.

To meet the needs of low-income families who are disproportionately burdened by the price of college, it is critical that college access and affordability efforts are intentionally designed to address equity. First in this brief, we will provide a framework to measure college affordability and describe the role of CSAs as a tool to help families pay for college and increase students’ expectations for degree attainment. Second, we will provide recommendations for local and state policymakers and practitioners for designing CSA programs that are more effective at engaging and supporting low-income families by:

• Designing CSAs as tools integrated with broader college affordability initiatives, such as college promise programs; and
• Designing CSAs as tools integrated with social services that address families’ holistic financial needs.

As examples, we will explore two promising practices employed by the Oakland Promise in Oakland, CA and Beyond Housing in St. Louis, MO. Furthermore, we will explain how these two initiatives strengthen the impact of CSAs through inclusive community engagement efforts.


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