College Board Challenges the Pell

The College Board has a brave new idea. It wants the government to establish college savings accounts for low-income children starting at the age of 11. The money for the college plan would come from advances on the Pell Grant, typically announced at the end of high school.

It is well-proven that when a family focuses on college early and believes that it is within financial reach, their student has a significantly greater chance of going to college. This proposal should build aspirations for college, creating motivation to get there.

Many low-income families have the resources to save for college but don't. Immigrant families, which make up 30 percent of low-income students in all public schools, send billions back to support relatives in their home countries without saving for their children's educations. For many African-Americans, church donations come before college savings. These choices illustrate the difficulty of saving for college.

There are now a number of local and state initiatives to promote savings and higher education aspirations among low-income families, such as the city-wide children's accounts in San Francisco and Maine's Harold Alfond College Challenge. There are also many Early Promise programs in Kalamazoo, Georgia and Indiana. However, both college savings programs and early scholarships have yet to be implemented together.

Unfortunately, in suggesting a change to the Pell Grant, College Board touches the live third rail of financial aid. The $35 million in annual Pell Grants is a subsidy to colleges. It is mother's milk to college finance. Colleges want to increase it, not change it. Many perceive Pell as a right similar to Social Security or Medicaid, an essential component of the safety net.

If the College Board is going to take on such a challenge, it is a pity it does not go far enough. It leaves control of the Pell Grant with the government. Families can neither add nor withdraw from the account. They must initiate savings separately, and that notion presupposes that low- income families will find account opening easy (529 accounts are not). If they do succeed, they may favor the personal accounts they control over the government accounts they do not, negating much of their impact.

What is missing is parent engagement. The only role parents have in the College Board plan is to passively witness the creation and growth of their child's account. Parents must save beyond what their child receives in Pell Grants or watch their children fall into debt. The College Plan proposal gives them little incentive to do so.

In fact the plan remains oddly detached from the low-income families it strives to assist. It opposes matching parental savings because it would cause inequities between families that do and do not save. It assumes that families will be motivated to save just by seeing government contributions go into an account and will understand the process well enough to open college savings accounts on their own.

Well-designed matches, knowledge about the college process and constant repetition of saving and learning creates habits that empower a family to reach for college. The College Board's plan represents a promising tool which would have a better chance for success with these additional elements.

Brave as it is to suggest changes in a cow so sacred as the Pell, the College Board needs to go further. To succeed, the plan must promote a strong role for families to save, learn and take control of their own college process.