Lucky newborns in the state of Massachusetts will be beneficiaries to a $50 jumpstart intended to put them on track to start saving for college before they learn their ABCs.
State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg announced SeedMA Baby Tuesday, the state’s first savings account program for children born or adopted in or after 2020. The program will guide parents through opening a 529 account, which will provide tax advantages for future education, and contribute the first $50 to the account.
Mayor Martin Walsh created a similar program in Boston in 2014. Walsh said that statistics show these programs help moderate- and middle-income students see college as an attainable goal, with children having an account being three times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to graduate, according to The Boston Globe.
That data, however, may be based on children who started with $500 in their accounts. In the grand scheme of the price of a college education, $500 and $50 aren’t hugely different amounts of money. But for a starting amount, $50 may not be enough to motivate parents to continue with the program.
Regardless, it’s better to have $50 than to not have $50. And the important part isn’t the money. The important part is the program that teaches parents — especially parents who didn’t go to college themselves and don’t know where to start — as long as these programs are equitable and distributed fairly across areas of the state.
It’s not surprising that the results for these programs show most clearly in the middle class. Perhaps the fundamental drawback of the program is that it will only help the children of parents who take the initiative to enroll them. If the state is waiting for parents to come to him — and isn’t reaching into communities where kids have no family support, where kids are truly challenged to find their own means to reach higher education — SeedMA Baby won’t work.
Walsh said the program will “show young kids that college is possible” and that the community “believes” in them.
Kids with parents who care to educate themselves on savings accounts and invest their time into this program most likely already know that their parents believe in them. These words are empty unless the program is pervasive in reaching into the crevices of the state, beyond Boston and its rich suburbs, and reaching people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to participate.
It’s a good thing, nevertheless, that the state is attempting to make higher education more accessible. At the very least, the administration shows an understanding of the ever-increasing burden that college imposes on families and the importance of educating parents on how to pay for college before it becomes too late.
There’s an idea that people only need an initial push to get started on the path to success, and after that, they can take matters into their own hands. And for someone who has all the tools to succeed already at their disposal and simply lacks the motivation, that might be true.
But this isn’t the case for students and their families struggling to afford college. In the case of minorities and low-income students who are consistently pushed down by factors that the rest of us can’t imagine, creating an account with a few dollars in it and labeling it a “college fund” isn’t enough. If the state is going to help people open a savings account, it needs to follow up and show them how to continue on with it.
With Harvard admissions on trial for alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants right now, the necessity of diversifying higher education — and the question of how to do so — is at the forefront of public attention. Making sure minorities have a fair shot at affording higher education is the first place to start.
Black, Latinx and low-income college students are disproportionately burdened by student debt. Less than two-thirds of white students at public schools take out loans, compared to four out of five black students.
An educational program that has no bearing on the success of lower-income students cannot be called progress. Those whose parents make more money will always be advantaged on some level, but State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg cannot say this is truly “empowering the next generation” if the program fails to empower the lower class.
Private donations are funding the program. This money is coming from people who, from the kindness of their hearts, want to give kids a jumpstart. Is it a big enough start? No. Is it going to cover everything? No. But it comes at no expense to people who don’t want to contribute to it.
The highlight of this program shouldn’t be the money. It should be the fact that it’s a mode to make people more educated. Making sure this program caters equally to different neighborhoods and constituencies, crossing language and income barriers to reach low-income parents, is what will ultimately make it successful. Otherwise, it’s a publicity stunt that just looks good on paper.