Melinda Lewis: Where did the idea to start a CSA in Wabash County come from?
Clint Kugler: It came from a conversation with a representative from our 529 who was at a Wabash City Schools event. We were discussing our work to close the achievement gap, and she introduced us to a concept that they had tried, with little success, to do a walk-a-thon to help students. She followed up by sending a research brief on the power of establishing CSAs. As we looked at our community, the most pressing need was low academic attainment. We began to ask questions, dive into research, talk to thought leaders, and pose the question, “How can we change the norm for kids in our service area?” Only 6% of kids in our area had a college savings account, and we wanted to change the likelihood of college success. We started with internal conversations, and then we engaged other sectors of the community. We asked, “How can we wrap support, engagement, and asset-building into the experience of every child in the community?”
Melinda Lewis: What were the greatest challenges in establishing your CSA? What do you wish you would have known?
Clint Kugler: “The efforts that had been done, from our vantage point, were mostly driven from the state. We didn’t really have a good model for what this would look like from a community perspective. It took about a year to have a conversation about the power of assets, and helping groups figure out how they could be a part of it. One of the challenges was figuring out how to make a case for support that resonates with the different sectors we’re trying to engage: faith, education, economic development, youth development. What we worked to do was to get feedback from these different sectors, and then build a case for support that allowed every person to say, “Yes, I’m on board for this.” Building that local support and buy-in, that’s not just one single group or focus area, but a multi-faceted community engagement and community development strategy, that was a big piece. The other piece was making the decision to ‘give it away.’ If this effort was going to be integrated into the fabric of our community, then it had to be owned by each of the key stakeholders (community foundation, economic development), but it’s always a decision that’s difficult to make when you are investing time and resources into a project. While the Y serves as the local convener, and we drive some of the programmatic aspects and logistics, we recognize it’s not the YMCA’s program. It belongs to our community. That’s one of the drivers of our success.
Melinda Lewis: How has your approach to CSAs changed since you started? What has spurred these evolutions?
Clint Kugler: “We have shifted some of the logistical delivery system and family engagement pieces. We want to make something complex as easy to understand as possible, without taking away the ownership that is so important for shifting future behavior. Some of our engagement strategies have changed. Initially, we focused on account creation, college and career discovery, and awareness of 529 college savings. Our awareness factor initially was higher than the national average. Pre-intervention, 41% of our parents knew what a 529 was. At our post-evaluation, 82% of parents were aware of 529s. Our baselines were a little higher because of Indiana’s generous tax advantages for 529 contributions, but the staggering thing was that very few families had learned about college savings from the school district, which resulted in so few lower-income families being engaged. Now we integrate into existing systems, and school is our initial touch point with families. We are meeting them where they are. Before, we were only looking at how we could help kids graduate from high school and, now, we’re looking at how we help kids prepare for success beyond high school. We are now working to make cultivation of a college-saver identify a critical function of the state and focusing on behavior change, which the accounts make possible. Now that families have opportunities to be active savers for their children’s education, we are cultivating those behaviors.
“We talk about the cost of college, but that’s actually a demoralizing figure. We have to rethink how we try to encourage people to save. Instead, we have to ‘shrink the change’. We need to talk about what we can do per day, and help them to ease into this. Once they feel some ownership, then, when something in their lives shift, they are already in position to make larger changes. There are structural changes that can help families so this shift is easier for everyone, regardless of their situation, and we’re helping pursue those changes. Our state’s 529 rules changed to allow deposits as low as $10, and, for our program, we have waivers to allow deposits as small as $5. This facilitates account opening and ongoing small deposits. We captured a significant percentage of the target population in year one, but, because it’s such a foreign concept, and we have high levels of poverty and low levels of financial experience, it was an overwhelming process. They did it because they knew it was a good opportunity and we provided the incentives. Now, they’re not so overwhelmed, and they can absorb the next tiers of information, about what they can earn if they save. As we shift into year 3, our focus is on how we can engage employers around payroll deduction, and even financial incentives, for employees that are making regular contributions. We are making college savings a point of pride in the community and unlocking people who believe in the power of education and shaping the potential of young people. It’s a developmental process. We learned from our experience at the YMCA of helping people make changes in their physical health. We understand the barriers people face to change; they resist change not because they don’t want to do it, but because they are overwhelmed and stressed. We eliminate as many of the barriers to that change that we can, to help them take those steps. We are getting people into the pipeline.”
Melinda Lewis: What do you view as the most essential elements that determine your CSAs’ success?
Clint Kugler: “The key to the Promise model, from an overall perspective, is that it is community-driven and state-supported. If you’re going to see massive change on a community level, it has to be driven by the community. That doesn’t mean the state doesn’t play a major role; the policy and systems are important. But the key to engaging kids in the pipeline is taking local people who want to make a change and say that they’re going to shape our kids’ future. In order to do that, there has to be deep collaboration. It took an investment of time, but it was one year from idea to account launch. Now, as we’re replicating our program in other communities, we have shrunk this to more like six months, by allowing communities to focus on engagement, while we handle the other aspects of program design. We have ‘tribal leaders’, who are key influencers in the community, and they are critical to galvanizing this commitment.”
Melinda Lewis: What is the future of CSAs in Indiana? At this point, how would the development of a national CSA affect your work? Would it?
Clint Kugler: We will continue using a controlled pilot approach by working with communities who demonstrate the need, interest and readiness to launch the Promise Indiana model. As the program is scaled throughout the state, we will use data to refine elements of the model to better shape college-saver identities.
The development of a national CSA program would greatly benefit the work we are doing in Indiana. A national CSA policy would simplify the account creation process and would create asset building opportunities for all youth. With a national CSA in place, communities would continue to play a critical role in helping families utilize asset building tools, and shaping children’s college-saver identities. We believe Promise Indiana communities, with their holistic approach to asset building, would be positioned to take full advantage of a national policy.