Program Profile: Virginia SOAR

April 14, 2016

By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant 

College Savings Accounts (CSAs,) 529 Accounts (529s), and other similar programs are one piece of the financial puzzle when funding a college education. Because these accounts focus on savings, predominantly middle-income families have historically used them; however, new organizations are developing creative ways to use 529s or CSAs for low-income and underserved youth. One program making CSAs accessible to low-income families is the Virginia SOAR program, a leg of the Virginia 529 Savings Plan organization. SOAR is an early commitment scholarship program administered by the Virginia 529 Savings Plan; every eligible student earns a scholarship through participation in SOAR, and the money is stored in stable-value accounts. The program functions as a scholarship program, but the accounts are personalized so each student can connect to their scholarship as a tangible good.

Based in an organization that offers financial planning and resources for a variety of Virginia residents, the SOAR program was developed to cater to the needs of specific populations. With the SOAR program, students are encouraged to become participants in tenth grade; their involvement in the program can result in a final value of $2000 to put towards educational expenses. Starting in tenth grade allows students to think about financial aid prior to their senior year, and also is close enough to graduation that the actual impact feels connected to their college journey. SOAR also wanted to remind students that tenth grade is not too late to think about saving for college – they wanted to build the infrastructure to make it possible. I spoke with Mary Morris, CEO of the Virginia 529 Savings Plan, about the history of the SOAR program and the development of its success over the past few years.

The leaders at the Virginia Savings Plans noticed a trend during the early 2000s that concerned them: large groups of people were left out of the higher education savings landscape, and programs designed to combat that were often unsustainable and “collapsing under their own weight.” By offering huge scholarship packages and promising full funding, many organizations were unable to maintain that level of commitment in the long term. The parameters of SOAR were designed to maintain sustainable funding, to be more inclusive of recipient populations, and make a large-scale impact. Providing $2000 meant that students would need to be academically and financially prepared to receive other scholarships and aid, but would still have access to an amount that could fill necessary gaps or provide the final piece of a multi-faceted financial aid package.
This is an early commitment scholarship program, which means students are required to fulfill a set of requirements over the course of a few years in order to receive the benefits of the program. In tenth grade, students register at the beginning of the year with their schools, access providers, and the SOAR Program. 

At registration, students promise to fulfill their obligations, which can be found here. This pledge is similar to other early commitment programs, with maintaining a 2.5 GPA, maintaining behavior in alignment with a conduct code, and completing the FAFSA. The SOAR pledge, however, is unique with a few of its other stipulations. For example, students must meet regularly with a college advisor once enrolled, and they also must complete financial literacy training. Trainings and regular meetings with advisors can be integral to college success by building the skills necessary to maintain commitments and to provide these students with a solid foundation upon which to build their financial knowledge and skills. If at the end of the first year, the student has completed their obligations, SOAR opens an account in their name for $500. These are stable-value accounts that students do not add money to, but with which SOAR adds money on their behalf. After junior year, another $500 is placed into the fund, assuming each requirement has been met. Finally, after graduation, if the student has completed their pledge, SOAR adds $1000 to the account. This creates an ending total of $2,000 that the student can put towards tuition, fees, books, or other educational expenses. 

The graduated savings give students an exercise in sustained commitment, which is an important skill to build prior to college. Morris pointed out that because money is added following each academic year, the students understand that the scholarship is coming as a result of completing a commitment, so it may be more meaningful to their development. Requiring that students regularly meet with college advisors and receive financial management training to earn the yearly amount also ensures that the recipients participate in the services that SOAR finds valuable.

One interesting aspect of SOAR is that students are required to spend the $2,000 over the course of two years. This is utilized as an encouragement to persist, and Morris reported that about 85% of SOAR participants have persisted into the second year of college. Many students receive abundant packages or local scholarships their first year of college, and those scholarships then lapse the following year; relying on the roughly $1,000 for the second year has helped students cover gaps that develop after first year scholarships conclude. Additionally, it requires more contact with SOAR, which helps students to maintain their commitment and continue interacting with a support system. 

The scholarship can be applied to any eligible two or four year institution, and for SOAR that means the institution is eligible for federal financial aid. There are no requirements to stay in Virginia, and many vocational or technical programs are also considered. This flexibility helps the students find schools that will be their best fit. Additionally, the scholarship does not have to be used the first year, which Morris says they included as they learned that financial aid packages often reduce after the first year. Many students are beginning at community college, so keeping the scholarship to use at the institution they transfer to allows for more freedom in selecting that institution. SOAR pays the school directly, ensuring that the money is used for educational expenses, but they are not limited to tuition or any specific cost.

Morris highlighted the importance of the various college access providers that SOAR works with as an integral partnership for the success of the program. These access providers are the key to actually disseminating information and connecting with the students with which SOAR hopes to work.  Additionally, partnering with the access providers has minimized administrative paperwork among SOAR and for students – the recipients register with the access providers, and that information is passed on to SOAR, and the access providers maintain most of the tracking and relationship building. Morris stated that SOAR is “good at the money,” and the access providers are great at building student connections. As a team, they work together to benefit the students financially as well as personally. 

Because SOAR is relatively new – a pilot began in 2009 and this was the first full-service year – the cohorts are small. At participating schools, each SOAR class has about 15 students, although Ms. Morris hopes to increase that number as the program increases in scale. The small numbers make it possible to provide comprehensive services; each student is paired with a mentor and an advisor to work on class scheduling, school planning, and academic needs, and the small cohorts mean that students receive valuable time with their mentors and advisors. As partnerships strengthen and more access providers come together to increase college attainment, Morris is confident that SOAR will ramp up to include more students. SOAR simply wants to reiterate the important point that savings accounts are not just for wealthy students – and low-income families absolutely can save and plan for college.

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