A Community's Part to Play: Building Hope and Assets
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High School graduation season is upon us. During this time of year, countless numbers of students will being making the transition from high school to college and career paths. How do we ensure that this transition is successful? In the coming weeks, we will be featuring blog posts that explore best practices in working to ensure college and career readiness.
Arriving in Wabash County, Indiana from Brooklyn, New York, I’ve had to answer to the perplexed looks about why I moved. The truth is, I was a teacher in a high-performing public school, and I simply became “burned out” on the city and pace of life. The opportunity to move to a quiet family farmhouse was the perfect antidote.
Yet I found myself itching for what to do next after a few months of slower-paced life. I taught at Ivy Tech Community College and supervised student teachers for the Education Department at Manchester University. I began writing grants for the YMCA and volunteering at a local ministry for at-risk youth.
Along the way, I learned that 26% of adults in Wabash County have a degree or certification beyond high school. Because I worked at the university at the time, this startled me. With a college in the backyard, 26% educational attainment seemed bizarre. But in Wabash, as in many other places, a degree wasn’t always the path to a fulfilling life. Manufacturing and farming offered good jobs and education beyond high school wasn’t required.
That’s no longer the case. And as opportunities dwindle, so does hope. One of the symptoms of kids who are struggling in Wabash is lack of hope. When a child’s reality is a parent incarcerated for drug use, no engagement in meaningful opportunities to learn and grow outside of school, and ultimately, fewer good jobs locally that don’t require a degree, they lose hope.
Without hope, any child, regardless of family background, can lose their way. So how do you operationalize hope on a local level?
It turns out, as a community, all we have to do is protect hope that is already there. All parents, regardless of their situation, have hope and aspirations when their children are young[i]. Similarly, all youth have hope for their future early in their school career. But when hope is extinguished before a child internalizes their identity as someone who pursues post-secondary education, it is difficult to reignite.
We can’t take for granted that early conversations count. All youth need to have dreams, new experiences, and adults in their lives that are encouraging them about their dreams. Whether they dream about a specific career or about their talents and aptitudes broadly, youth supported in this way have purpose in their schooling.
At the same time, few families begin to save for college when their children are young and have time to accumulate assets before graduating from high school. A deficiency of assets is a threat not only to the ability to pay for college in the future, but it can threaten hope. “Assets are hope in a concrete form … [they] change the way people think.”[ii]
Without assets, college feels unrealistic because of the cost. The direct benefit of savings occur when it comes time to enroll in college, but the indirect effect can be just as important: saving and owning savings over the years may raise expectations for college. Raised expectations may even lead to different behavior and outcomes in the classroom during a child’s school career.[iii]
Research has demonstrated positive affects for youth with educational savings, so communities need to help parents start. Only 11.7% of youth in Indiana have a 529 college savings account, and that rate varies widely by county[iv]. Youth with an account in their name are between 3 and 7 times more likely to go to college than kids without one[v]. Low- to moderate-income youth are 4.5 times more likely to graduate from college if they have an account, even if the balance is small, between $1 and $499.[vi] An account helps shape a child’s identity that “I am someone who goes to college” and helps build hope for the future.
In Wabash County, we moved the needle on youth in grades K-3 with a college savings account from 6% to over 70% in one year, building hope in the process. Communities can make it easy for families and empower them to save. When a child takes a step and the community takes a step with them, hope for the future is built.
What are your thoughts on starting to save for college early? Do you know someone who has successfully used this strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and on social media using #AmGradIndy.
[i] Elliott, W. (2009). Children’s college aspirations and expectations: The potential role of children’s development accounts (CDAs). Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 274-283.
[ii] Sherraden, M (1991). Assets and the Poor: New American Welfare Policy. Routledge: New York.
[iii] Elliott, W. (2009). Children’s college aspirations and expectations: The potential role of children’s development accounts (CDAs). Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 274-283.
[iv] CollegeChoice 529. Accounts—Assets by County.
[v] Elliott and Beverly (2010). The role of savings and wealth in reducing "wilt" between expectations and college attendance. CSD Publication No. 10-04, Center for Social Development, Washington University in St. Louis.
[vi] Elliott, W. (2013). Small-dollar children’s savings accounts and children’s college outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(3), 572–585.
Bio: Amanda Jones-Layman leads operations for the Wabash County Promise (www.wabashcountypromise.org) and Promise Indiana (@PromiseIndiana) as Vice President of Academic Engagement of the Wabash County YMCA. She also oversees county-wide initiatives in summer learning loss prevention and early learning readiness to address the academic achievement gap.