College applications, diplomas and student loans are still more than a decade away, but St. Louis’ youngest students are stockpiling free cash to pay for their diplomas.
The St. Louis treasurer’s office has opened a college savings account for every kindergartner in public school in the city since 2015 through its College Kids program, seeding each with $50 in parking revenue.
“If we don’t invest in them now, then we’re going to pay for them later,” said Treasurer Tishaura Jones.
Today, more than 13,500 kids have accounts with savings totalling more than $900,000, according to the treasurer’s office. On top of the initial deposit, students can earn annual bonuses of up to $100, such as $30 for good attendance. The bonuses are funded through corporate and philanthropic donations.
Children with any money saved up for higher education are three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to finish their studies, according to research done at both Washington University and elsewhere.
“So it’s not what’s in the account; it’s the presence of the account that’s a real game changer for families,” Jones said.
But the program has its doubters.
A lawsuit brought by two city residents in November challenging the validity of Jones’ Office of Financial Empowerment is before the Missouri Supreme Court. It broadly questions the treasurer’s right to be the sole controller of parking revenue.
In a court brief, plaintiffs argue the College Kids program in particular violates the state constitution by granting public money to private citizens, saying the program is “wholly outside the scope of the responsibility of the Office of the Treasurer.”
Putting parking revenue toward financial literacy and empowerment is within the purview of a city treasurer, Jones said, and the college savings program is modeled off of programs started by city treasurers in other major cities.
“This is the work that city treasurers do; they use their leverage with banks and credit unions to bring more resources to their communities,” Jones said.
Some elected officials in the city also question the effectiveness of the program. Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, says opening the accounts is “a good gesture” but doubts whether low-income families will ever add to it if they’re struggling to pay for housing and food.
Parents in the program say any dollar that reduces the future cost of putting kids through college is valuable.
A College Kids event at the 1st Financial Federal Credit Union downtown last week was well attended. As parents opened or checked on accounts, their children sat around a brightly decorated table chowing on slices of pizza.
They were there to find out the winner of an art contest. The assignment: draw what you want to be when you grow up. The winner got an extra $100 in his or her account.
Camiyah Johnson, 9, wants to grow up to be a basketball player. Her younger brother, Camori, wants to be an artist. Together, they have $1,500 in their accounts.
Camiyah says she’s already looking forward to living in a dorm when she gets to college. And she knows the key to the busy class schedules: “You can’t be late to those classes, or you’ll flunk out of college.”
Camiyah was crowned co-winner of the art contest.
Camiyah and Camori’s grandmother, Charlene Jackson, is glad they’re already thinking about college. She’s put some of her own money into their accounts, but the bonuses from the city and nonprofit partners “has really given me the umph to push this forward,” she said.
The average annual cost of in-state public-institution tuition is $9,410, according to the College Board, while a private school on average costs $32,410. Collectively, Americans hold $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.
Jackson said she’s going to do everything she can to avoid her or her grandkids going into debt to pay for their studies.
“We’re going to be well prepared when it is time because I know not only is College Kids going to help them, but I know they’re going to qualify for scholarships and things like that because they’re very brilliant little kids,” she said.
Correction: The original version of this story referred to the parties suing the treasurer’s office as prosecutors but it is not a criminal case. They are plaintiffs. Also, the students do not have 529 plans.
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