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College Savings for College Success: Helping Low-Income Families Access Higher Education Through 529 Accounts

Note: This is a guest post from Christina Davila, Project Manager at El Monte Promise Foundation

According to surprising results announced in an El Monte, California needs assessment in 2009, local families’ dialogues regarding higher education decidedly dwindled over the course of a child’s life. In contrast, more affluent areas saw an increase in high-school-to-college transitional rhetoric. 

Of course, that’s not to imply that local parents weren’t encouraging college attainment for their children. What, then, was the root of the silence, creeping covertly over time to stifle the dreams of a disadvantaged community? 

Following the assessment, parents’ college enthusiasm spiked exuberantly during pre-kindergarten and kindergarten years, drinking in the bright, early promise of their toddlers’ school beginnings. But many low-income families—often navigating the U.S. school system for the first time—were thrust toward a silencing wall of unnerving financial burden, as they learned too late the cost implications of sending a student to college. 

For this reason, the El Monte Promise Foundation began to steer families toward college savings and financial understanding via the Children’s Savings Account (CSA) Scholars Savings Program. The program used an opt-in model with local neighborhood districts that was unique in its encouragement of family decision-making. This way, opting-in became a conscious affirmation of parents’ unwavering conviction for their child’s future college success. Today, the Foundation’s CSA program has 379 accounts open—with $168,800 saved by families on their own and $30,300 matched funds provided by the program.  

Having families physically sit down alongside El Monte Promise to create their CSAs has proven to be a critical step, inviting action-oriented advocacy from parents. Inspiringly, despite language, literacy and technology barriers, these local families are now stewarded through the process of creating college savings accounts with confidence. 

Free one-on-one staff support for Spanish translation and account management adds a friendly link to accessible college savings. An open-door policy invites families through flexible hours that respect the blue-collar work schedules of El Monte and South El Monte’s neighborhoods.  

This support fosters necessary personal contact, warming families with cultural familiarity towards both the foundation and 529 accounts as a bridge to formal world of finance. 

A model of community-friendly financial literacy consistently drives the work of El Monte Promise. In cooperation with local districts and the deliberate, creative, work of seasoned educators, a full-scale K-8, Common Core-aligned financial literacy curriculum has been realized. This vital curriculum is on its second year of implementation. 

In tandem with student learning, free community-friendly workshops delivered in multiple languages have re-opened college-going conversations for families that have been fiscally intimidated into academic stagnation. Parent workshops ease the anxiety of sticker shock on college price tags by providing feasible strategies to finance higher education, and by dissecting admission language to embolden parents with a new lexicon of college financial aid terms. 

The rising cost of a college education, growing numbers of people in student debt and predatory loans that stalk low-income communities all coalesce to influence the deterrent rhetoric that discourages families from pursuing higher education. The Scholars Savings Program model is one of many ongoing strategies to engage families in dialogues that dispel real community fears about finance. Opt-in 529 accounts are an early solution to an overwhelming world of sudden and daunting information, as students hurtle toward an unforgiving finish line of graduation.  

Through early exposure and community empowerment in gradually navigating the unfamiliar realm of academia, families are encouraged to pursue information in culturally relevant contexts. The intellectual spaces and opportunities created by the work of El Monte Promise provide not only valuable opportunities to local communities, but academic capital to harness the concepts of fiscal power.

Keep up with the latest information on our work in Children’s Savings and the field at large byjoining the Campaign for Every Kid’s Future.