Children’s savings field chalks up major milestones

Mayor Breed fixes a child’s graduation cap for K2C’s Deposit Day in San Francisco.
Photo: City and County of San Francisco

On a bright and blustery spring day in San Francisco, 15 first-graders from Bryant Elementary School, accompanied by their teachers, made their way to City Hall for a very special event. April 26 marked the 10th anniversary celebration of Kindergarten to College, the first universal, municipal children’s savings account program in the country.

Once inside the rotunda, the children were greeted by K2C Program Manager Mohan Kanungo, who asked, “How many of you plan to go to college?” Every hand shot up. Then, joined by Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and City and County Treasurer José Cisneros, the children assembled at Citibank, where they deposited the $11 millionth dollar into K2C savings accounts.

Founded in 2011 by then-San Francisco Mayor Newsom and Treasurer Cisneros, K2C automatically opens a savings account seeded with $50 in public funds for every child entering kindergarten in San Francisco’s public schools. The program’s aim? To open pathways to post-secondary education for children in every ZIP code of the city, from their very first day of school.

A group of adults in formal attire sit in chairs smile at an audience of children sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them.
From left to right: State Treasurer Fiona Ma, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and City and County Treasurer José Cisneros joined first-graders to celebrate K2C’s 10th anniversary. Photo: City and County of San Francisco

“We started K2C so that every student in our public schools would know that they have a future worth saving for,” said Treasurer Cisneros. “More important than the money itself, $11 million in savings represents millions of conversations our families are having with their children about their possibility of going to college.”

Kendy Tello, a parent of four in San Francisco, is having those conversations with her own children and also promoting K2C to other parents.

“I myself am a first-generation college graduate,” said Tello. “I studied pharmacy tech and am very happy that I did because I want a better future for all my kids. But I’m still paying the school loan. That’s why a program like this is so important. It gives you hope that you can start saving for them right now to give them a better, brighter future.”

Aisha Brown, who has two children with K2C accounts, echoes this sentiment.

“Coming from a low-income neighborhood, born and raised here in San Francisco, you tend to not think college is achievable,” Brown said. “With programs like this, coming home every week to a flier or an email from the school district, more families are becoming more aware of how they can get their children to go to college.”

Assets are ‘hope in concrete form.’”
Michael Sherraden headshot. Michael Sherraden, Founding Director, Center For Social Development, Washington University in St. Louis

K2C’s anniversary marked not only a decade of local determination — behind-the-scenes efforts by city, school and community leaders to make children’s savings accounts a reality for 50,000 families — but a milestone for the CSA field writ large. When K2C started, there were only a handful of CSA programs. Inspired by success in San Francisco and other places, today there are 123 CSA programs in 39 states.

A chart showing the total number of CSA programs in operation, with a total of 23 in 2021.
Courtesy of Prosperity Now

“K2C’s impact on the CSA movement has been catalytic,” said Benita Melton, who directs the Education program at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which has provided more than $2.3 million in grant support for the program since 2011, and now provides support for the statewide CALKIDS program, as well. “As the nation’s first municipal program, K2C has expanded the postsecondary aspirations of children in San Francisco and modeled how communities can come together to bring this idea to scale. Its successes have captured the imagination of community and government leaders nationwide and inspired dozens of replication efforts.”

In California, replication has taken the form of a statewide savings program that’s already on track to become one of the largest in the country.

“We’re taking the promise of success statewide so that every California student can be college ready,” said Gov. Newsom. “This July, 3.5 million Californians are going to get their own savings accounts.”

Other states are already embracing the idea.

In Maine, the Harold Alfond College Challenge has grown by leaps and bounds. It started in 2008 as a pilot project for all babies born at Maine General Health. Today, the program provides a $500 Alfond grant at birth for every baby born in Maine for their future education. Pennsylvania launched its statewide Keystone Scholars in 2019, creating a $100 college or technical school savings account for every baby born to a Pennsylvania family.

Momentum also continues to grow at municipal and county levels. In 2020, Mayor Melvin Carter launched CollegeBound Saint Paul. It’s the first citywide CSA program in the country to start at birth. In 2019, more than a dozen new CSA programs started in big cities, such as Milwaukee and Miami, and more rural communities, such as Lapeer County, Michigan, according to a national survey by Prosperity Now.

All told, more than 1.2 million young people now have a children’s savings account in their name, reports Prosperity Now. And that number grows larger by the day. The majority of programs have a primary goal of increasing the number of young people who complete college or career training, and nearly half are specifically designed to decrease racial inequities in educational attainment or build assets.

Children gather around an adult as he crouches down to their eye level to ask them questions about their Children's Savings Accounts.
Children with a CSA in their name are three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate. Photo: City and County of San Francisco

Research shows this makes a difference. Children from low- and moderate-income families with a CSA in their name — even if the amount is modest — are three times more likely to enroll in college than children with no savings, and four times more likely to graduate. Studies show that programs have large positive effects on savings for college, with the largest effects among households of color and families with lower incomes. And, more than money alone, the accounts spark college-going aspirations. Kids begin to form ideas about their future early. Having savings for college raises their expectations and issues an invitation.

A smiling teen girl stands at a podium.
Thailyah Miller, a member of K2C’s first class, is now in high school. Photo: City and County of San Francisco

Assets are “hope in concrete form,” wrote social work scholar Michael Sherraden, whose research in the early 1990s spurred the development of the field. For the young people who were part of K2C’s earliest cohort of kindergarteners, it’s an idea that’s proved prescient.

Thailyah Miller, a member of K2C’s inaugural class, is now a high school junior.

“I first heard about the program in kindergarten, but it didn’t mean so much back then,” said Miller. “But as I got into middle school and high school, I saw that I had money saved up from this program. My plan when I go to college is to major in social work so that I can become a traveling social worker and help people through traumatic experiences. I already have early acceptances at Shaw University in North Carolina and Charles Drew University of Medicine in L.A.”

“We’re delighted by K2C’s achievements on behalf of young people in San Francisco — and by the progress of the CSA movement around the country,” said Melton.