In One School, Planning For College Starts With $100

In the Cleveland area, there's a plan to inspire kids to start thinking about college early on by giving them seed money. Officials want to set up kindergarteners with savings accounts. Though the initial $100 deposit isn't likely to cover much, the hope is that it will inspire them to take the idea of going to college seriously.

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It's that time of year again when high school seniors scramble to finish their college applications. In northern Ohio, there's an effort under way to get kids thinking about college earlier, much earlier. Ida Lieszkovszky of member station WCPN reports on a move to give college money to kindergarteners.

IDA LIESZKOVSZKY, BYLINE: At Village Prep School on Cleveland's eastside, some kindergarten students are thinking about what they'd do with $100.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I will buy a bike, a Reese's Cup.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: A furry gown and some candy.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I will buy a car. If I had some dogs, I would buy them a lot of toys.

LIESZKOVSZKY: But putting that money aside for college doesn't come up. And that's largely why Cuyahoga County officials want to do it for them, by setting up savings accounts for every one of the 15,000 kindergartners here.

Kindergarten teacher Rachel Leeds is delighted by the idea.

RACHEL LEEDS: When we initially heard about it, I was like, first, my heart was warm. I was like, oh, my gosh. My kids are finally - like, they get a chance. And we're here to show them that their dreams can come true. And we're here to give them the foundation for those dreams. And the money is just the extra portion that, like, everyone needs to, like, push them.

LIESZKOVSZKY: In Cleveland, less than 15 percent of residents have a college degree. The goal is to inspire families to start talking about college early on. But the program already has some opposition. County council member Dave Greenspan is concerned about the $2 million price tag.

DAVE GREENSPAN: I am not inclined to support any significant spending initiatives whatsoever.

LIESZKOVSZKY: And anyway, he says, putting 100 bucks aside now won't make a dent in college tuition in 13 years. But supporters disagree. They say if a family adds just $20 a week to their savings account, they'd have more than $13,000 set aside by the time their kindergartner graduates high school. Still, that's less than the yearly tuition of the average public university today.

But paying for college isn't really the point. The program is less about money than about aspirations. San Francisco started a similar program two years ago and deposited only $50 into savings accounts for kindergartners there. San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros says while it's not a lot of money, the small savings accounts are already having a big effect.

JOSE CISNEROS: What I've seen when I've gone in and talked to the parents and some of the account holder children very early on is that it's really made a difference in the dialogue from age five, that these kids are having both in school, I believe, and at home with their families and their parents.

LIESZKOVSZKY: Research shows having an account makes it four times more likely that a child will go to college. And if that account is in the child's name, they are seven times more likely to attend college.

Cuyahoga County executive Ed Fitzgerald says that's exactly what he's aiming for.

ED FITZGERALD: It has the potential anyway to just change the expectations of children. It's a very tangible way for them to envision what their future could be.

LIESZKOVSZKY: If Fitzgerald has his way, kids here will be thinking a bit less about bikes, dogs and candy, and more about what classes they'll sign up for on the first day of college.

For NPR News, I'm Ida Lieszkovszky in Cleveland.

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