Few NYC public school parents taking advantage of free money for college savings

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By Dan Sears

More than 130,000 New York City public school parents are leaving free money on the table for a college fund – and critics say a cumbersome enrollment process could be the cause.

The NYC Kids RISE college savings program launched across the city in 2022 with the goal of making higher education more obtainable for students.

The program makes an automatic initial investment of $100 in scholarship money for all new kindergarten, first and second grade students through a general account managed by the Kids RISE nonprofit.

Parents are then encouraged to set up and connect separate, individual accounts where they save their own money, making them eligible for an additional $175 in rewards once they complete all the steps.

The education department says more than 200,000 students have received a total of $30 million towards college through the initiative.

But very few parents have made it to the finish line in order to collect all the cash rewards available for their kids’ college savings, according to education department data.

As of last June, only 5,279 families out of 143,079 – or 3.7% – have completed the steps and started investing in their accounts, according to a Freedom of Information Law request provided to Gothamist by Andrew Gerst, an attorney at the civil rights advocacy group Mobilization for Justice.

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He suspects the low completion rate is due to a clunky multi-step process that involves first activating the general scholarship account managed by Kids Rise, and then creating and connecting an individual college savings account where participants can save their own money. The process involves choosing a savings plan, then submitting an assortment of ID numbers, creating passwords and providing other personal information.

“I think it’s a great idea and that more families need to start saving earlier,” Gerst said. “But I realized it’s very, very cumbersome, so I became concerned that families may not actually be using this.”

He said the education department and the non-profit administering the fund, Kids RISE, need to do a better job educating families about the opportunity and consider streamlining the enrollment process.

The stakes are high: Research shows that children with even a small savings account of $1 to $500 are three times more likely to enroll in college and more than four times more likely to graduate.

“Every kid will have a financial asset for college and career and they will know that they have it from the earliest of ages,” said Kids RISE executive director Debra-Ellen Glickstein. She said that amounts to a sea change in how many families think about and plan for college.

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Community groups and local businesses are encouraged to donate to the college savings accounts. Students at certain schools and in some neighborhoods have already received hundreds of dollars more through donations.

“Their family, their school, their neighborhood help to reinforce the expectations about what’s possible,” Glickstein said.

According to Kids RISE, schools are tasked with helping families learn about the accounts and activate them.

Asked about the small proportion of families who have set up their own accounts, the city’s education department offered general praise.

“New York City Public Schools is proud to partner with NYC Kids Rise to continuously invest in the futures of our children as they work towards their individual college and career aspirations,” said spokesperson Chyann Tull.

Glickstein said the program is still ramping up. “We’re just getting started,” she said.

Charlene Espino, 43, said she was thrilled to have her daughter, who is in kindergarten at PS 85, The Great Expectations School in the Bronx, enrolled in the broader scholarship plan.

“None of us really went to college,” she said. “My goal is to get baby girl off to college and this is the start.” She said she checks the account regularly. With community contributions, it had grown to nearly $350. “It’s good stuff,” she said. “I hope all the families are getting with it.”

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A public relations firm representing Kids RISE arranged Gothamist’s interview with Espino, who said she joined the program earlier this month. She has yet to finish setting up her daughter’s individual savings account, but said she plans to do so this week.

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