Pittsburgh-area school offers incentives to save for college

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By:  Eleanor Chute
March 27, 2013

Amber Webb of Duquesne has good intentions about saving for college for her 9-year-old daughter, RaSona Howard.

But Ms. Webb, a single mother who works at a day care center, also has expenses to meet.

Now a program starting at her daughter's charter school -- Propel Homestead -- may provide an extra push to set money aside.

Called Fund My Future, the program sets up savings accounts in the child's name and offers raffles for gift cards as incentives to make deposits.

"This is a way to help families do what they've been wanting to do," said Jeremy Resnick, CEO of the Propel Schools Foundation, which will serve as custodian for the accounts.

The program is beginning next week at the Homestead school as well as the Propel Braddock Hills Elementary and Braddock Hills High schools. The remaining six Propel schools will begin participating in the fall.

Ms. Webb, who is president of the school and community council, said "Not only are you investing in your child, but you also might get rewarded for it."

This effort is about more than the money. Propel was looking for a way to encourage students to prepare for and go on to postsecondary education.

Charice Thomas, program manager, said, "It opens up those conversations for them to talk with their kids and to let their child know we're behind you."

It turns out that research shows that just having a custodial account in the child's own name can make a difference in whether that child continues on to college.

William Elliott III, assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas, found that of high school students who expect to go to college, those with a custodial savings account in their name were six times more likely to actually attend.

Of all students in households with income below $50,000, only 45 percent of those who did not have their own savings account enrolled in college, but 65 percent of those with savings from $1 to $499 enrolled and 72 percent of those with savings of $500 or more enrolled.

Variations of children's savings accounts -- some with matching amounts donated -- have cropped up around the country, through the influence of several organizations, including the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington, D.C., organization aimed at alleviating poverty through economic opportunity and which worked with Propel in developing the proposal.

CFED president Andrea Levere said children's savings accounts have been developed over the past decade and a half "to help break the intergenerational transfer of poverty in low-income families" and "to help build both the financial resources and aspirations for higher or post-secondary education."

San Francisco now has a kindergarten-to-college children's savings accounts in a partnership with Citi and EARN, a provider of matched savings accounts for low-income workers.

The program opens a savings account for children entering kindergarten in San Francisco public schools with a $50 deposit from the city.

Other match money is available for some low-income students.

At Propel, about 75 percent of the families of its 3,000 students are low-income.

The plan is designed to make savings simple and fun.

Families do not have to provide a Social Security number, credit history or employment status. The accounts do not have fees.

The accounts do not accrue interest nor do they have a tax benefit.

Propel's description notes they are not personal assets of the parents and won't be considered as personal assets for government benefits.

One ticket is given for monthly raffles at each school for each $10 deposit, with up to four tickets possible each month.

Families can make deposits of up to $20 at the school on Bank at School Days or they can go to a Fifth/Third bank or set up direct deposits.

Fund My Future is a 2.5-year program, which Mr. Resnick expects will cost about $500,000 to operate over that time. So far, the Benter and Grable foundations have signed on to help, and other foundations are considering the proposal.

If it goes well, Mr. Resnick said the school will look to continuing it.

The program is to be highlighted at the Philanthropy Forum at the University of Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Ms. Webb is eager to get started. She said the savings will show her daughter that "I've been thinking about your future and it means that much to me, it should mean that much to you."

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