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New England's success with regional approach could be key to children's savings accounts

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

LAWRENCE — Recent years have seen tremendous interest in Children’s Savings Accounts, interventions with demonstrated potential to improve educational outcomes, increase expectations and academic engagement, and facilitate economic mobility. Policy momentum is not always accompanied by clarity about how those pursuing CSAs should design, implement and evaluate these approaches, however. This is guidance that communities, states and regions urgently need, as evidence supporting CSAs mounts, while the need to help American families finance college grows.

Toward this end, New England, which has seen a cascade of CSA policy enactment unmatched in any other part of the country, may provide a road map to how a regional approach could play a critical role in scaling CSAs.

Two University of Kansas professors have authored a policy paper that analyzes CSAs in six New England states: Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, detailing specifics of each program, including origins, financing, intended aims, incentives and eligibility. While the paper does not compare the CSAs, each of which were developed to respond to particular priorities within a given context, policymakers and others interested in CSAs can draw from the experiences of each, as well as from the potential of regional collaboration to catalyze greater policy success.

“The significance of New England, in the CSA policy landscape, is not just the proliferation of policies, but the regional approach, and the emerging evidence that their exchanges of ideas and cross-fertilization of leadership may inform and encourage further efforts,” said Melinda Lewis, associate professor of practice and assistant director of the Center on Assets, Education, and Inclusion (AEDI) in the School of Social Welfare. “They are documenting their successes and leveraging their proximity to work together to improve all of their programs, even while each retains its unique character. That, we think, may be a model for scaling up CSAs across the country.”

Lewis co-authored the report with William Elliott III, associate professor of social welfare and director of AEDI. They will present the research to the New England CSA Consortium in July in Boston. The group is the only regional collective of CSA practitioners, policymakers and advocates in the country. With the facilitation of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the group meets quarterly to compare progress, discuss policy development and future action for CSAs in the region and, increasingly, share ideas about the metrics by which to evaluate their CSAs.

“Our reading of political and economic realities is that only a national commitment to CSA policy will realize the vision of universal provision of progressive, lifelong, asset-building accounts for every child,” Elliott said. “There are signs of emerging opportunity at the federal level, but we also believe that regional momentum — such as seen in New England — may help to lead to the day when every American child has the savings account they need and deserve.”

Elliott and Lewis provide detailed analyses of each state’s CSA policy and its potential implications for the national scene. For example, they detail how Maine’s Harold Alfond College Challenge has achieved universal, opt-out CSA provision using philanthropic dollars. Rhode Island’s CollegeBoundBaby is the first to implement “checkbox” enrollment, allowing parents to claim a $100 seed deposit for their newborn child in a CSA on the same form that requests a birth certificate.

There are many similarities between programs as well. All of the New England states’ CSAs emphasize birth, rather than kindergarten, for enrollment. Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island include initial deposits that do not require family contributions. Vermont recently approved legislation to provide the same, and similar proposals have been made in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“CSA policy is not as idiosyncratic as one might expect,” Lewis said. “National CSA policy may not have to sacrifice local, unique aspects. New England shows that we could have national CSA policy as the infrastructure, onto which jurisdictions can innovate and expand.”

The report is of particular value to AEDI’s partners in New England who operate the CSA programs, helped provide and analyze data and who work to improve programs, while spreading word of their successes. AEDI believes it could also be of value beyond New England, particularly to policy makers, educators, investors and others interested in establishing, modifying or replicating CSAs.

“There are critical questions we need to ask, and find answers for as a field and as a country if we want to provide this opportunity for all young Americans. Each one of these states offers lessons we can learn,” Lewis said. “New England shows that a strong regional approach could perhaps be the best way to a national CSA policy. Communities and states are pursuing CSAs as interventions that have potential for positive progress in some of the most pressing educational and economic challenges we face. In New England, these efforts are building on each other, with regional collaboration illustrating the advantages of scale.”

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