Children’s Savings Accounts Keep Education Aspirations High for Kids of Color

Young: The Supreme Court's affirmative action decision is a denial of opportunity. It's more important than ever to invest in children's futures.

This is a photo of a mom and young girl with a backpack walking

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The Supreme Court ruling that struck down affirmative action in college admissions threatens to deny countless students of color a viable path to postsecondary education that is the hallmark of the American dream of opportunity for all.  

The need to mobilize against this threat is urgent. 

It is imperative to meet the “intergenerational transmission of inequality” that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote about in her dissent with an intergenerational transmission of hope and opportunity. This means supercharging families’ ability to envision and plan for higher education with tangible workarounds to the systemic inequities that affirmative action was intended to correct. And this work needs to start early, while fragile aspirations are being formed.

Children’s savings accounts are a proven strategy that works. Even before the ruling, dozens of equity-focused organizations, municipalities and even entire states, California and Maine among them, had taken steps to nurture, validate and encourage parents’ long-term goals for their young children by providing them with this resource.  

These accounts are established as early as birth and grow over time. Typically, they are funded with an initial deposit of $100 to $1,000. Further savings by family and friends are encouraged, often with incentives, and account holders are offered financial education to help them understand the power of long-term saving. The accounts are typically used for higher education, but can also be applied to buying a home or starting a business.

Book Harvest, a children’s literacy organization I founded in Durham, North Carolina, launched Bright Futures in 2021 to harness the potential of children’s savings accounts to expand hope and opportunity. Medicaid-eligible families who participate in our Book Babies program, which provides quarterly literacy coaching visits, a home library of more than 100 age- and language- appropriate books, and additional support during a child’s first five years of life, are invited to open a Bright Futures children’s savings account through a local credit union, with support from their literacy coach. Book Harvest contributes $100 per year to a child’s account for each completed year of Book Babies participation, up to $500, underwritten by private philanthropy. These funds, along with any additional deposits from families, interest, etc., can be used for the child’s education or career needs.

Our motivation for making these investments is grounded in evidence: research reveals that a child with school savings of less than $500 is three times more likely to enroll in college, and more than twice as likely to graduate, than a child who has no savings.  Students with savings earmarked for college report higher expectations for earning a degree and identify as college-bound. Children’s savings accounts can serve as a powerful counterbalance to historic and present-day inequities by transforming how participating children of color see themselves and their opportunities, and creating a means for building assets over time. Parents can also grow more confident in setting high expectations and long-term goals for their children and themselves.

Programs like these are growing rapidly across the country.  At the end of 2022, there were 128 in 38 states and the District of Columbia, reaching 4.9 million children — a 300% increase since 2021. 

Today, more than 160 families in Durham have Bright Futures accounts through Book Harvest, and the number continues to grow. We have expanded Book Babies to Forsyth County, North Carolina, where additional families are opening accounts. Programs like ours are scalable and replicable, especially when incorporated as a part of a larger coordinated strategy to advance educational equity and social mobility.

In response to the recent Supreme Court ruling, Book Harvest will double down on extending this resource to more young children and their families by expanding the program both in Durham and other communities. We are also talking with diverse stakeholders, including and especially parents, to better understand and address challenges to implementation and to address and resolve them. One example is working to ensure that the process for opening and maintaining accounts is family-friendly, particularly for those who may not have experience with personal banking.

We intend to share what we have learned with other organizations and with state and local governments, in hopes that together we can optimize the enrollment and engagement of families. We are connecting with elected officials and policymakers to provide research-informed findings that demonstrate the importance of the accounts and how they can effect big change on families’ goal-setting and planning for higher education. And we are closely following leaders in the field of family asset-building to incorporate their findings and guidance into our CSA work, in a spirit of continuous improvement.

A lot is at stake. As a nation that upholds values of liberty and justice for all, we can’t afford to lose a generation of children to lowered aspirations for seeking higher education because they feel unwelcome in the corridors of academia or are unable to get fair admissions considerations that value their experience.

Hope and opportunity, fueled by tangible programs making real investments in children’s futures, may be among the best tools communities have to offset and minimize the damage wrought by the Supreme Court’s dismantling of affirmative action. The specific programs deployed by organizations committed to educational equity will vary. But it is incumbent on leaders from nonprofits, community-led groups, local and state government, higher education, and public- and private-sector agencies to come together to send parents of color the clear, irrefutable message that their children are welcome and valued on college campuses — indeed, that they belong there — and that envisioning and planning for higher education for their young children is fully and legitimately their provenance.

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