How $50 makes kids seven times more likely to attend college

September 26, 2013

Kate Marshall has a theory she’s willing to bet $50 on. In fact, she’s willing to make a lot of bets. Marshall, Nevada’s state treasurer, thinks that by seeding college savings accounts for thousands of rural Silver State students, she’ll make it seven times more likely that they’ll attend college.

The state of Nevada is launching a pilot program next month to set up college savings plans for 3,000 kindergarteners in 13 rural counties. Each student will have $50 deposited in his or her account to begin; Marshall is careful to note that the money comes from grants, private donations and management fees that banks and other financial institutions pay the state, rather than from taxpayers.

The goal, Marshall said in a scratchy telephone interview in between stops in sparsely populated rural Nevada, is to give students a hint that attending college is attainable.

“If you give a child a college savings account, even 10 bucks, it doesn’t matter, the child tends to have a view that they have a future,” Marshall said. “The whole idea is, how do we facilitate a college-bound culture?”

A January 2010 study [pdf] published by the Center for Social Development at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis found that children who have college savings accounts are almost seven times more likely to attend college than children without an account. Having a savings account, the study found, was a better predictor of whether a child would attend college than race or parents’ net worth.

Marshall’s plan would provide up to $300 in matching funds for families that make less than $75,000 a year and put money into a college savings account. She said several of the firms that offer savings accounts to students have agreed to drop their enrollment fees to as low as $15. And those accounts will generate quarterly statements that allow Marshall to continue to communicate with parents on the importance of saving for college.

It’s a long-term plan, Marshall said, one that won’t show dividends until today’s kindergarteners head to college, more than a decade down the road. “I’m starting with these kids in kindergarten, and we won’t know [whether it works] for 13 years,” Marshall said.

But it might be worth the try: Census figures show that those who have some college experience, regardless of where they live, tend to have a much higher median income than those who have only completed high school. In 2011, the Census Bureau estimated that the median income of those with at least some college experience was $35,995 in Churchill County, just west of Reno and Carson City, far higher than the $28,235 median income earned by those who had only graduated from high school.

And residents of rural counties are less likely to receive college educations than residents of more urban areas. Just 22.1 percent of Nevadans receive a bachelor’s degree, according to Census figures, well below the 28.1 percent national average. In rural Elko and Esmerelda Counties, that figure is just over 16 percent; in tiny Lander County, only 13 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree. Compare that with Washoe County, home of Reno, where 27 percent have a college degree, or Clark County, home of Las Vegas, which sits right at the state average.

So far, the program doesn’t cover students in Clark or Washoe counties, the state’s two most populous. Marshall said she hopes to expand the program to those counties eventually.

Marshall won’t be treasurer by the time those kindergarteners move on; she’s term-limited out of office next year. But she may be around in another capacity: She’s running for secretary of state in 2014.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · September 25, 2013