Families who can afford it can open up a college savings plan, sometimes called a 529 plan, but that’s not a reality for everyone in America.
The Oakland-based nonprofit Oakland Promise sought to give families a leg up by starting the Brilliant Baby program. Oaklanders who qualify for Medicaid and recently had a baby get a college savings account (CSA) seeded with $500.
The program also offers free financial coaching and educational programming designed to support child development.
“There’s a lot of research that points to how financial stress — the taxing nature of financial stress makes it harder to focus on everything… We wanted to reduce financial stress, increase kind of focus and optimism around early development,” said Amanda Feinstein, a childhood development specialist who previously founded and directed the Brilliant Baby program.
Researchers studied the impact of the program on parents’ educational aspirations after the kids reached 18 months old.
Past research has shown that kids whose parents didn’t attend college often have lower educational expectations.
Marc Hernandez, a University of Chicago researcher who helped lead the study, explained how he himself was a first-generation college student and how his family was skeptical of higher education.
“I remember having a conversation with my grandfather, he didn’t go to college. It’s like, well why do you need to go to college?” he said.
Hernandez found when parents received the seed money, their expectations for their child’s academic success increased, with more hope for the future, better self-rated health and less stress.
Parents who got the financial coaching on top of the seed money were more likely to save for their kids’ education and more likely to participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
Providing seed money for CSAs has become an increasingly popular program across the country. Pennsylvania, for instance, has been providing $100 for seed accounts for every baby born on or after Jan. 1, 2019.
While the impact on the parents is gradually reported, it’s not yet clear what the long-term impact these programs will have on the kids since they’re very new, Hernandez said.
“There is no data as far as I’m aware of what the long-term impacts of…CSAs have on college-going because the oldest programs aren’t there yet,” he said.
Only one other program, Oklahoma’s SEED OK, is part of an ongoing long-term study, Hernadez said.
Back in Oakland, the Brilliant Babies recipients are just starting kindergarten.
While short-term reports are promising, the long-term goal is to see if the program will impact attitudes and behaviors among families and help them increase their educational success.
Hernadez adds $500 alone isn’t going to get a kid into college.
“Something else is happening because of that $500 that’s going to get them there. What is it that’s changing? Well one of the things we think is going to change is how the parent thinks about and interacts with that kid,” he said.
While the long-term benefits of Brilliant Baby are still being studied, Feinstein said community members impacted by it have described how it has changed their attitudes.
“In some ways, it’s about just like starting and knowing that the community, the government…also cares to invest in your child. When we’ve talked to our families in Brilliant Baby, often they say it matters to me that the Oakland community cares about my child, too,” she said.