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December 7, 2020

Reimagining College Promise Programs: A Wealth Perspective

This blog post is part of a series of introductions for our College Promise Policy Briefs, which aim to critically analyze Promise related research and program experiences in order to offer recommendations for actions or evidence-based policies to leaders of the College Promise movement.

This week, Dr. William Elliott III and Sophia Nielsen, MSW, from the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, write on “Reimagining College Promise Programs: A Wealth Perspective.

Education is one of the largest investments America makes in reducing poverty and promoting economic mobility. From this perspective, education is perceived by many as a long-term strategy for achieving individual, family, and intergenerational prosperity, a tool for increasing overall productivity, and an engine of the economic growth on which our collective fortunes depend. However, like poverty policies in America, education policies have largely focused on providing children with enough financial aid to survive, not enough to thrive. This brief argues that in order to deliver on the promise of money, that a better notion of free is to provide low-income and underserved students with targeted ongoing deposits into a Children’s Savings Account from an early age. Further, we should consider integrating this long-term strategy with a long-term education investment, like College Promise programs, to reverse this damaging trend, build a college going culture within families and their communities, and remove economic barriers to higher education and adult success.

American policies have long been defined by a means to survive, not necessarily prosper and flourish. Riding the wave of popularity that followed his New Deal, in the era of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his fellow Democrats in 1936: ‘Liberty requires opportunity to make a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living that gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.’ Without this opportunity, he continued, ‘life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.’ The contrasting approaches of providing the poor with what is necessary to survive while providing the wealthy with something worth living for have resulted in a bifurcated welfare system that essentially offers different life chances depending on a family’s financial status.

Co-authors, William Elliott and Sophia Nielsen, suggest that education has become similarly divided, offering different opportunities depending on a family’s financial status. Given this, Dr. Elliott and Ms. Nielsen propose that financial aid should embrace the spirit of President Roosevelt’s words and go beyond providing a minimum amount of goods required to survive (i.e., “do I have enough to pay my tuition bill?”). One option highlighted in this brief, is to lift up the growing number of Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) programs and integrate them into one of the 360 Promise programs across the country. When integrated, Promise and CSA programs complement each other well, with the relative strengths of the two community and state-based initiatives helping to overcome the challenges of each alone.


Invest in large dollar rather than small dollar CSAs

Today’s growing economic inequality means that small dollar CSAs (i.e., initial deposits of $25 to $1,000) are not enough. Low-income families have little discretionary money and will never be able to save enough to make up for their from-behind start in life. Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs), if transformed from their small dollar form into large dollar accounts, might offer low-income and underserved children the assets they need to pay for college and imagine and achieve a life worth living.

Utilize targeted ongoing deposits to increase the impact of small dollar CSAs

While saving is important within CSA programs, it is not the only tool at their disposal for building assets. By providing every child with an account, the scaffolding is put in place to augment the saving efforts of low-income families through targeted ongoing deposits. Targeted ongoing deposits might take the form of automatically created accounts at birth for every child born in the United States that provided an initial deposit of $1,000 and each year after low-income and underserved children would receive ongoing yearly deposits of $2,000 or more until they reach 18.  

Broaden and integrate Promise and CSA programs to promote economic mobility

Standing alone, CSAs and College Promise programs offer families immense benefits, but neither is a silver bullet to the college affordability, completion, and workforce supply challenges ahead, especially now. When implemented in tandem, the two complement each other well, with the relative strengths of the community and state-based initiatives helping to overcome the challenges of each alone.

For more information on the growth of CSA and Promise Programs, and the potential benefits of integrating, please read the full policy brief. If you would like to stay up to date on integration-related events and resources, please contact Michelle Cooper to be added to the College Promise-CSA Peer Learning Network.

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