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Perspective | What does college have to do with newborns? Everything, it turns out

When Christina McLean of Durham signed her daughter Lauren up for Book Babies Bright Futures, a Book Harvest program that contributes $500 into a savings account for Lauren’s college or career, she was overjoyed. “I did not see just the $500,” McLean said. “I saw $5,000… $50,000… $500,000… even $5 million! I saw a seed that, if I watered and nurtured it, would grow into a harvest that will help me fund my daughter’s future education.”

It is rare that a single initiative can leverage exponential and potentially life-changing impacts. Children’s savings accounts are just that: small investments with a potential for huge impact.

College is expensive. And many parents, rightfully and understandably, see it as out of reach for their children. Yet research by Professor Willie Elliott from the University of Michigan finds that children who have college savings of as little as $1-$499 are three times more likely to attend college and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate than those who do not.

Given the well-documented racial wealth gap, it is worth noting that adults with a college degree earn $1.2 million more over their lifetimes than their counterparts who did not continue their education beyond high school. Thus, unlocking higher education for those who are frequently left out can have a real and dramatic impact on their social mobility and wealth. What’s more, this is necessary work to meaningfully address historically entrenched equity gaps in our country. 

How can such a modest sum generate such big effects? It may be as simple as forging identity: children with savings earmarked for college report higher expectations for college and identify as college-bound. And it may speak to the power of hope. Professor Elliott noted recently that CSAs create “tangible hope” for children and families: “Poor kids dream, poor kids have aspirations. They just don’t have a strategy for achieving them that’s realistic for them. Tangible hope means having a true pathway to achieving that dream.” 

Robert Friedman, the founder of Prosperity Now and a leader in the asset-building movement, summed it up succinctly when he said, “Basically, if you expect that you are going to go to college, you’ll go to college. You find a way.”

Here in North Carolina, we have a singular opportunity in front of us now to bring the transformative potential of CSAs to families, unlocking their aspirations and expectations for their children’s futures, starting at birth. Here’s how.

Tap public funds to launch CSAs.

Last month, Rep. James Roberson, D-Wake, filed House Bill 1145 at the General Assembly, which would establish the Higher Education Savings Grant Pilot Program and make $100 available to the families of every baby born in five pilot counties (Duplin, Guilford, Madison, Union, and Wake) between July 1, 2021 and June 20, 2022. This bill has collected 17 additional bi-sponsors and holds the promise of paving the way for a statewide CSA program starting at birth.

This is far from uncharted territory. Many states are acting on this imperative and this opportunity to meaningfully address social mobility with investments that have been proven to work.

Already, in eight states (including Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia), children’s savings accounts are endowed either automatically for all newborns or upon parents/guardians making an initial deposit in a 529 college saving accounts. Next year, California and Illinois are scheduled to do the same. 

The opportunity is before each of us to reach out to our elected officials and voice our enthusiasm for House Bill 1145.

Engage private philanthropy to seed CSA pilots.

Book Harvest launched its Book Babies Bright Futures CSA program in fall 2021 with a generous donation from an individual. It can be done. And across our country, community foundations and investment firms hold donor-advised funds (DAFs) whose total assets exceeded $159 billion in 2020.

For holders of DAFs, invitations to contribute to merit-based and need-based scholarships as well as “send a kid to camp” programs are all too familiar. Why not extend the invitation to newborns, supporting parents’ hopes and dreams from the time their child is born and carving out new identities for families previously left out of the thrill of imagining college? Many DAF fundholders are eager and willing to have their imaginations captured by a life-changing upfront investment in a tiny person’s future — and they will step up if fund managers share the opportunity. A minuscule fraction of the enormous pot of DAF funds in our country could transform whole communities — and, eventually, the vibrancy of our workforce, upending longstanding race- and income-based wealth gaps.

Whether public or private, wellsprings of funds to launch widescale CSAs for newborns are within reach. For all of us who are working hard to help babies and children thrive in the first years of life, we need to integrate our thinking about long-term goal-setting for families into our early childhood strategies.

As North Carolina’s families struggle to recover from the ravages of COVID and as our state confronts the massive challenge of building our future workforce, we need both “tangible hope” and college engagement and completion to meet these challenges. CSAs can help — beginning today. This is a rare moment of great potential that we in North Carolina can seize. All the pieces are within reach. Let’s each do our part to unleash parents’ imaginations about the long-term future that may be possible for their babies and young children with a small but powerful investment in their savings for higher education.

Carl Rist

Carl Rist is an independent consultant who has spent nearly 30 years in the nonprofit sector working to advance economic opportunity, wealth-building, and financial security. He is also the former chair of NC Child’s board of directors.  

Ginger Young

Ginger Young is founder and CEO of Book Harvest, a North Carolina nonprofit organization that is internationally recognized for its work to transform children’s literacy.