College Access and College Savings

How Can College Access/Success and College Savings Work Better Together to Increase Postsecondary Enrollment and Completion for Underrepresented Students?

The college savings movement is growing across the country. Its roots come from the nonprofit asset-building community, which is distinct from the college access and success field, but the two movements share a deep commitment to supporting the same low-income individuals and families to build stronger futures. By working together, we can ensure that Child or College Savings Account (CSA) programs are well-designed and integrated with the other access strategies proven to increase postsecondary enrollment and completion.  

Thanks to a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, NCAN is collaborating during 2018-2020 with the Campaign for Every Kid's Future (CEKF), an organization dedicated to the expansion of CSAs. With their assistance, NCAN is publicizing information about CSA research, how to find or set up CSAs, and examples of established and emerging programs, especially those embedded in larger college access and success initiatives. In exchange, NCAN is providing information to the CEKF community about the college access and success field and additional strategies to support students to and through postsecondary education. Below you’ll find some basics about CSAs and examples of how they are operating in several U.S. communities. For more in-depth information about CSAs, please also visit

What is a CSA?

It is a savings account whose proceeds are designated to pay for a student’s higher education after age 18, often created by a state or local government or nonprofit organization and intended to encourage more students to pursue postsecondary education. Many CSA programs offer savings incentives for low-income families who make their own deposits or engage in activities related to college preparation or financial literacy. Investment growth in the accounts can be tax-free at the federal or state level. Examples include the Harry Alfond Grant, which provides $500 in college savings for every baby born in Maine, and the San Francisco Kindergarten to College Program, which provides $50 in college savings for every kindergarten student.

In 2017, CEKF’s annual report found that 382,000 children in 54 programs had a CSA, a 22 percent increase from 2016. Programs ranged from small, community-based programs serving a few hundred kids to large-scale programs enrolling at least 2,000 children annually. These largest programs enroll the majority of children who have a CSA; the seven large programs accounted for 86 percent of total CSA enrollment. Visit this interactive national map of CSAs to learn more about programs in your area or explore models in other communities.   

What does research say about the effectiveness of CSAs in helping more students go to college?

Recent research has helped to fuel the CSA movement. A 2013 study led by Professor William Elliott, now at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, examined 2009 data from the national Panel Study of Income Dynamics and its supplements, focusing on 512 families with incomes below $50,000 and 345 families with incomes of $50,000 or more. The analysis found that students from families earning below $50,000 but who had from $1 to $499 saved for college were more than four times more likely to attend college than other low-to-moderate income students with no college savings. Researchers hypothesize that CSAs can increase the likelihood of a child attending and graduating college because they instill the early belief that postsecondary education is possible, encouraging students to make choices consistent with college preparation throughout their K-12 education.  

For more research on CSAs, please visit the University of Michigan’s Center for Assets, Education, and Inclusion.  This 2017 research literature review from the Brandeis University Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Levers for Success Key Features and Outcomes of Children’s Savings Account Programs, helpfully identifies features of CSA programs that are associated with high levels of uptake and engagement by low- to moderate-income families, as well as features that contribute to the long-term sustainability of CSAs.

What are some examples of CSA programs that support low-income students and students of color?

All states offer a college savings account, known as a 529 account, that any family can use to save tax-free for college, but just 12 states provide savings matches to incent lower-income families to participate. Louisiana is one of them. Because the state 529 plan is run by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, the same agency that manages financial aid for college, college savings information is particularly well-integrated into outreach to low-income families about how to pay for college. Both the need-based contribution match and coordination with the state postsecondary financial aid agency are ideas worthy of consideration by states that want to make 529 plans better serve low-income families. 

In Virginia, the Virginia 529 plan partners with several nonprofit organizations to make account contributions to some low-income high school students as they achieve certain college preparatory milestones, thereby integrating savings with the steps students must take to be college-ready. Students can earn up to $2,000 if they maintain a 2.5 GPA, minimize school absences, engage in community service, and complete a FAFSA. VA529 collaborates with college access programs and the state community college system to reach students.

“I Have A Dream” Foundation affiliates in Colorado, Iowa, and New York City offer a DREAM accounts program that combines matched savings contributions with an evidence-based set of college access milestones and a robust postsecondary financial education curriculum. The DREAM accounts reinforce a college-going culture and provide families with vital information and financial support to help offset the cost of college tuition and supplies. As one New York City student said, “Reaching my college savings account milestones and earning savings for college helped me in preparation for college in that it kept me on task, especially with deadlines because I was more inclined to get things done right away instead of waiting [until the] last minute.” Read more about how the program has influenced students on their pathway to college.

In Massachusetts, the nonprofit organization Inversant has oriented its entire program around college savings. Inversant combines a monthly learning curriculum for parents, incentivized savings, and connection to other helpful community agencies. Facilitators coach parents on a full range of college access topics, including standardized testing, higher education options and costs, and the college application process. Inversant has also partnered with state agencies and the Boston Public Schools to pilot savings programs for elementary and middle school students. 

Launched in 2016, KC Scholars seeks to increase postsecondary education attainment for low- and modest-income students and adults in the greater Kansas City area, and has adopted savings accounts as one of its key strategies, in addition to scholarships and support services. The college savings program provides 500 9th-graders annually with a $50 529 account, and some students receive savings matches on their own contributions and incentives for completing key college-ready milestones for a total of up to $7,000.

The Oakland Promise is a multidimensional community effort to triple postsecondary attainment for Oakland students by 2025. It includes two savings account programs: Brilliant Baby ($500 at birth with additional savings matches available) and Kindergarten to College ($100 for all kindergarten students, with additional matches available). The Oakland Promise also provides postsecondary access advising to high school students, need-based scholarships, and partnerships with local colleges to increase student success.

Since 2015, the El Monte Promise in California has helped 379 low-income students and families save almost $200,000 for college. Free parent workshops in multiple languages at convenient times help families understand that they can in fact afford college for their children and learn the lingo of college admissions and financial aid. This information empowers parents to continue to support their students’ college aspirations. To open a Scholars Savings Account, a parent must have a Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification number for him or herself and for the child, as well as an email address. The El Monte Promise uses the nonprofit organization my529 as account administrator, formerly known as the Utah Educational Savings Plan.

In June 2018, Pennsylvania's governor signed a bill establishing the Keystone Scholars program, which will grant $100 to every baby born in Pennsylvania or adopted by Pennsylvania residents, starting in January 2019. The money can only be used for postsecondary education at an approved institution, including trade schools, vocational programs, community colleges, and universities. Pennsylvania joins Maine and Nevada as the only states with universal statewide programs that automatically enroll children in the program. Pennsylvania and Maine’s programs enroll newborn babies, whereas Nevada’s enrolls every kindergartner who attends public school in the state. Read more about the Keystone Scholars program on the NCAN blog.

In October 2018, Massachusetts announced that beginning in 2020, the state will automatically deposit $50 into each 529 college savings account opened within one year of a baby’s birth or adoption. The new program, called SeedMA Baby, represents a statewide expansion of a pilot version tested with kindergartners in Worcester and Monson, MA, that began in 2016. Read more about the SeedMA Baby initiative on the NCAN blog.