The San Francisco Chronicle
By: John Coté
October 5, 2010
Ingrid Lopez just started kindergarten at San Francisco's Sanchez Elementary School, but she already has big plans.
"She's saying, 'I will buy you a car, mom,' " chuckled her mother, Julissa Cruz, who walks or takes public transportation to pick up her daughter from the school near Dolores Park.
But for young Ingrid's plans to become reality, "she needs to go to college, she needs to go to a university," her mother, speaking in Spanish, said through an interpreter.
Today, Ingrid will be helped in taking a small first step as officials unveil Kindergarten to College, the nation's first city-bankrolled college savings plan. The program is fueled by the belief that those who save for college are more likely to go.
The 5-year-old will be among about 1,200 newly enrolled kindergartners at 18 San Francisco public schools who will get a one-time payment of at least $50 in taxpayer funds placed in a special trust account. It can only be used to fund post-secondary education like a city college, vocational school or four-year university.
Lower-income students who qualify for the federal government's free or reduced-price lunch program will start with $100, city officials said.
The plan is to have corporations, nonprofit groups and others offer matching incentives to encourage children and their families to save.
EARN, a local nonprofit that specializes in micro loans and other financial services for low-income workers, has already committed to contributing $100 for every student whose family also saves $100 during the first years of the program.
The San Francisco Foundation has agreed to make additional matches for parents who take financial education classes and make recurring deposits.
Citibank has agreed to set up the accounts at no cost to the students or parents, said Robert Annibale, global director of Citi Community Development. City officials plan to have the accounts open and funded for families by Dec. 1.
"No one else in the country is doing this," Mayor Gavin Newsom said. "We are not just saying every child can go to college. We are now providing families with the financial tools necessary to make this a reality."
Officials acknowledge that the city's portion alone won't pay for a college education. But family deposits, other matches and compounding interest over about 12 years will go a long way toward tuition, they say, especially for the roughly half of all Latino and African American families in San Francisco that don't have savings accounts.
"We're going to work with the families so they can see that if they could do just $5 a month, or $10 ... that's going to result in literally thousands of dollars after 12 or 13 years," city Treasurer Jose Cisneros said.
City officials point to a study from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis that found children who had just some savings set aside for college were about seven times more likely to go.
"We have to start somewhere," said Supervisor David Campos. "The fact that this isn't full tuition from the start doesn't mean this is not something we should do. You cannot overestimate what it means for a child to know that college is a possibility."
The program is the evolution of the Baby Savings Bond proposal that Newsom rolled out in his inauguration address in 2008 that would have covered all children born in the city. Newsom says he poached the idea from then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Great Britain has a similar program, but the local version stalled amid resistance to publicly subsidizing a college education for wealthy residents.
The current program, which Cisneros formulated with Newsom, covers only students enrolled in public schools. It is designed to be rolled out over three years.
This year, there is $257,000 in the city budget to set up the program and cover about one-fourth of incoming kindergartners. Schools in every supervisorial district, including those in low-income areas, were chosen for the initial year. The number of pupils would double next year, with the entire kindergarten class covered by the third year. The money will come from the city's general fund, and officials have not decided how to invest it.
$460 million deficit
But that expansion is dependent on future funding, and the city is already looking at a projected deficit next year of about $460 million. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a Newsom ally but also a fiscal hawk, fought to strip funding for the program from the current budget and vows to do so again.
"It's an absolutely wonderful idea if the San Francisco government could print money, but we can't," Elsbernd said. "It doesn't get to the core function of local government, and I don't think it should be a part of our budget."
Julissa Cruz, whose husband supports their family by working at a coffee shop, said the program would allow her two daughters to thrive in an increasingly globalized world.
"We're here in this country to become more educated," Cruz said. "That's what I want my daughters to have, what I didn't have."
Kindergarten to College
This year, $257,000 is budgeted to set up the program and cover about one-fourth of kindergartners. For now, 18 elementary schools are covered, with full coverage planned for 2012-13. How it works:
The accounts: The city gives kindergartners at public schools $50 to $100 in a trust account.
Other funding: Nonprofit organizations and other groups offer matching funds.
Spending rules: Money from the accounts can be used only for post-secondary education.
E-mail John Coté at firstname.lastname@example.org.