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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

William Elliott: We Save, We Go to College

Published:  January 19, 2012
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The third report in the Creating a Financial Stake in College series is being released today. In “We Save, We Go to College,” William Elliott looks at the factors contributing to a child being “on course” (enrolled in or have graduated from a two- or four-year college by age 23) or experiencing “wilt,” a phenomenon that describes children who had aspirations to attend college when in high school but are not enrolled after graduating from high school. Savings in childhood can help combat “wilt,” particularly among low and middle income children by helping them form college-bound identities that help position them early in life on paths to success.

Elliott notes that while desire, ability and effort are critical contributors to success in college attendance, they do not fully explain disparities in attendance along race and income lines. As he explains, “the lowest-achieving children from high-income families attend college at a much higher rate than the lowest-achieving children from low-income families.” Children with access to and confidence in family financial resources to help pay for college develop more positive expectations about college attendance. These expectations can reinforce educational engagement and create a cycle of achievement that builds toward success. Lower-income children may excel academically but may lack the college-bound identity building framework that higher-income children take for granted. Children’s savings accounts are uniquely suited to addressing this college attendance gap because, as Elliott writes, “children’s savings programs can help institutionalize the development of college-bound identities, especially for low- and moderate-income children.” The ASPIRE Act, a proposal that would create a savings account for every U.S. child at birth, is one such way to address this problem. Ownership of savings “gives children a sense of power in regards to college” that helps mitigate other institutional barriers to success. In this way, Elliott and colleagues argue that children’s savings accounts are a powerful but simple tool for creating greater equality in educational opportunity.

Report I Why Policymakers Should Care about Children’s Savings is available here.

Report II Does Structural Inequality Begin with a Bank Account? is available here.

The final report in the series will be available next Thursday.

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