By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — From town hall gatherings on the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire to hearing rooms at state capitols and city halls across the country, identifying solutions to the problem of college affordability and student debt has become not just an educational challenge, but an economic one.
As the cost of attending college climbs, a four-year education at a public or private university slips further out of reach for many families, according to experts, which can negatively impact not just a student’s long-term earning potential, but growth in burgeoning business sectors.
Underlying the question of affordability is another issue: How do policymakers make college seem like an attainable goal for low-income families?
Both topics could heat up on Beacon Hill this fall when the Committee on Higher Education plans a hearing on dozens of bills focused on investing in higher education and making college more affordable.
The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16.
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg has indicated her intention to pilot college savings accounts for kindergarteners this fall through public-private partnerships, while Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in his annual address to the city in January, detailed a plan offer accounts with $100 in public funding to 1,500 low-income city kindergartners supported by the Eos Foundation.
Goldberg’s plan is to start with one city and set up savings accounts with $50 to start for all kindergarteners. The details will be rolled out in the coming months, but the funding will be supplied through the treasurer’s economic empowerment trust fund, which she is also using for financial literacy programs.
A number of lawmakers have also filed bills proposing everything from Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) for every child in the Commonwealth to pilot programs or study commissions to examine the cost and effectiveness of helping families save for college.
Rep. Thomas Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on Higher Education, has filed one bill (H 1068) that proposes to spend up $250,000 to incentivize families to begin setting aside money for their child’s education. The pilot program, which would likely be targeted toward lower-income urban school districts, would provide matching funds of up to $1,000 for families that save at least $150 of their own money in an account for college.
“Money’s good, but with a lot of kids, a lot of students, especially kids that are low-income, there is a lot of money available to them. We just need to get them thinking college is something for them. That’s what it is about,” Sannicandro told the News Service.
A report published in 2014 by the Department of Higher Education estimated that 72 percent of jobs in Massachusetts by 2020 would require a college degree, and that the public higher education system was on pace to produce 55,000 to 65,000 fewer graduates than demanded by the economy.
“The real point of the bill is to get more low-income folks into colleges, to get them to graduate. College is the ultimate goal because we need more people in Massachusetts with degrees and we know we’re not doing a great job getting low-income folks into college and there are huge racial and ethnic disparities,” Sannicandro said.
Bob Hildreth, the founder and executive director of FUEL Education, has been working with policymakers like Sannicandro to promote the idea of CSAs in Massachusetts, and could eventually play a role in helping to administer them.
FUEL Education, founded in 2009, works with partner schools and organizations in Boston, Chelsea and Lynn to help families save for college, with an educational component for parents to help them understand the importance of college and the financial resources and loans available to them.
With private donations from groups like the Boston Foundation and the Smith Foundation, FUEL has been able to work with over 700 families and nearly 1000 students holding accounts totaling $700,000. For every $25 saved by a family, FUEL matches the savings up to $1,800.
“What we’re after is taking the motivation that exists in low-income families and aiming it with education to actually helping a kid. We believe that motivation cannot be taught by teachers,” Hildreth said.
While state matches for college savings accounts would only cover a fraction of the price of tuition for participants, cost remains an issue.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge has filed legislation (S 664), which is also co-sponsored in the House by Sannicandro, that would direct the Massachusetts Education Financing Authority to set up a college savings account with $250 for every child born in the Commonwealth. Under the bill, the state would match up to $500 saved by parents.
Maine offers a similar program, seeding every child born in that state with $500 to start their college savings account.
Hildreth, however, said the potential $10 million to $20 million price tag on the bill could be a non-starter. “Under the Baker administration, that’s not going anywhere,” he said bluntly.
At least 17 other states already provide matching funds for 529 college savings accounts, including four in New England – Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
While detractors may look to examples like San Francisco where only 14 percent of school-aged children are signed up for the city’s first-in-the-nation publicly funded CSA program, Hildreth said FUEL’s numbers point to success.
More than 200 FUEL students are currently enrolled in college, with a “persistence rate” of 89 percent as of the fall of 2014. A study published by the Center for Social Development found that children with as little as $500 saved for college are three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate with a degree than children with no savings.
“The deal is, what we found is parental engagement is hard work. You have to engage them intellectually to show them it’s worth their while,” Hildreth said.
Sannicandro said he’s hopeful to see progress made this session, but admits the challenge will be carving room out in the state’s tight budget and making it a priority.
“It’s not a controversial item. It’s just a matter of if you want to spend the money,” he said.