National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Cuyahoga County to seed college savings accounts

By Charles Taylor


Cuyahoga County, Ohio  is making a bold move to ensure that more Cleveland-area kids can continue their education after high school.

Piggybank.jpgCounty Executive Ed FitzGerald recently launched the Cuyahoga County College Savings Account Program. It will deposit $100 for every child entering kindergarten starting in fall 2013. Open to 15,000 public, private and parochial school students, it will be the largest program of its kind in the nation.

“It’s a lot to take on, but we think that it’s a proven methodology. It’s not experimental, so we decided that weren’t going to do some tiny pilot project,” he said. “There’ve been a lot of these projects across the country. This is just taking it to a greater scale than it ever has been before.”

When fully implemented, Cuyahoga’s program is expected to cost about $2 million annually and will be paid for by a county higher education fund required by the county’s charter. It will be an opt-out program; parents who do not want their kids to participate can sign a waiver.

The fund will only make disbursements to qualified educational institutions on a student’s behalf, not make payments directly to the student. FitzGerald said it is open to all kindergartners because “we didn’t want any stigma associated with it — that it was just for certain parts of town or certain people, or it was a poverty program.”

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The savings accounts can be used for any post-secondary education, including vocational training, and two- and four-year colleges. If not claimed by an age deadline yet to be established, the money will revert to the fund pool. The county is also considering additional deposits at key educational milestones, such as graduation from elementary and middle school. FitzGerald said the county has been in “very serious negotiations” with some of the larger financial institutions in the Cleveland area who might pick up the program’s administrative costs and contribute to the accounts.

“Cuyahoga County is positioning itself as a national leader in the rapidly growing field of asset building for children,” said Andrea Levere, president of the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), which helped the county develop its program and one in San Francisco. CFED’s mission includes aiding families — through savings and asset building — to achieve goals such as buying a home, pursuing higher education or starting a business.

Students with savings accounts are four times more likely to attend college than those without, and six times more likely if the savings account is in the student’s name, according to recent research by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis.

The County Council passed the measure on first reading; FitzGerald expects final approval by March or earlier.

The college savings program addresses a growing need in the Cleveland area and across the country, county officials said. For the first time, students today are less likely to complete college than their parents; less than one in 10 low‐income students graduate from college by their mid‐20s.

“We’re big believers in early investment and this is the earliest investment you can really make for higher education,” FitzGerald said. “We could have taken $2 million a year and focused on kids that are seniors in high school. ... You’re dealing at that point with a population that is college bound. The question was could we do something that was going to get more kids on a college trajectory in the first place?”

The initiative is similar the City and County of San Francisco’s Kindergarten to College program, which launched in 2010 and has a current enrollment of nearly 8,000 students. It deposits $50 in a college savings account for every child entering kindergarten in a public school; children who receive free or reduced-price lunches get an additional $50. Incentive funds to encourage families to make contributions to the accounts have been raised from the private sector. “They’ve done a terrific job of carrying the work forward and have become leaders in the field in their own right,” said Leigh Tivol, CFED’s director of savings and financial security.

Anee Brar is program manager for San Francisco’s Kindergarten to College (KtoC) program. “If you have college aspirations from the first day of kindergarten, by the time you get to high school, it could be pretty transformational,” she said.

KtoC program officials have been advising Cuyahoga County, Brar said — providing technical assistance.

“Ultimately, our goal is to help other municipalities,” she said. “We were the first ones to do this universally, and whatever we’ve learned we want to share our best practices with those who want to replicate this.” Several states and municipalities across the U.S. have developed similar programs.

Tivol said CFED’s phones are “ringing off the hook” with requests for advice and assistance. “We are seeing major breakthroughs at the federal, state and local levels from policymakers who are making pioneering investments in this area.

“I think that government leaders with vision see children’s savings as a way to fill in what has largely been a missing piece of the higher education puzzle,” she said, “and to build savings early to help fill the gaps that financial aid just doesn’t reach.”