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Yvonne Abraham

Seeding savings and hope for a college education

In spring, a young senior’s fancy turns to thoughts of college.

And her parents turn to freaking out about how the heck they’ll pay for it.

It’s a horror show out there. Already obscene college costs are rising way faster than family incomes. Nationally, we’re carrying over $1 trillion in student loans, our kids’ debts averaging $28,000 each .

If it’s bad for middle-class families, it’s even worse for low-income households. Instead of bridging class divides, colleges are perpetuating them. Intimidated by the prospect of massive tuition bills, and remote from the culture and connections that might help them figure a way, a lot of struggling parents give up on the college dream for their kids long before their kids reach high school.

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But what if you could get low-income parents to save, even a little, for college — and to start early, the way many middle-class parents do? What if you encourage them to open college savings accounts when their kids are born, or enter kindergarten, seeding the funds with $100, or even $500? What if you encourage them to keep saving by matching some of their contributions?

A lot of people around here are intrigued by those questions lately. In January, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a pilot plan to open college accounts for 1,500 low-income Boston kindergartners, and with the Eos Foundation, to seed each account with $100.

On Beacon Hill, a bunch of lawmakers are pushing to do the same for kids across the state. In that group are Acton Senator Jamie Eldridge, and Ashland Representative Tom Sannicandro, who are proposing college accounts for every child at birth, with parental contributions matched up to $250 a year. It’s modeled on Maine, where, with help from the Alfond Foundation, every baby automatically gets a college savings account containing $500. Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont are moving toward their own variations on this worthy theme.

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Philanthropist Bob Hildreth has been watching these developments with delight. Since 2009, his nonprofit, FUEL Education, has been opening and seeding college savings accounts for 700 low-income families in Boston, Chelsea, and Lynn. FUEL and its corporate partners offer matching funds, up to $1,500, as long as parents attend workshops on applying for college and financial aid.

“That money is to help get parents’ heads in the game,” Hildreth said. So far, families have seen a total of $700,000 matched.

“It really is exciting to watch it grow,” said Winsome Francis, a nurse’s assistant whose son is a junior at Boston Latin Academy. “Planning is 100 percent easier.” She has saved $3,000 so far. It doesn’t seem like much, right? Not relative to those vast college bills. But it’s a huge boost for a parent who would otherwise have nothing. As the idea catches on, parents will start earlier, and save more.

Besides, college savings accounts bring benefits to low-income families that go way beyond the money. Research shows that having even a little set aside for higher ed encourages the assumption that kids are college-bound. Margaret Clancy, of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St Louis, compared Oklahoma mothers whose kids were given college savings accounts with those who weren’t. Parents of those with accounts had higher expectations for their kids, and better mental health.

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“Mothers talked about how important it was that someone outside the family expected the child to go to college,” Clancy said.

Those expectations are enormously powerful — kids with even a few hundred dollars in savings are more likely to go to college, and stay there — as is the underlying idea. These accounts are a no-brainer investment for the state, not to mention the businesses with a giant stake in a college-educated workforce.

It’s spring. Let’s fix it so that more poor kids’ college fancies turn into reality — and their parents’ fears into hope.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.