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Professional Opinion

How saving for college becomes routine

A rural district encourages many more families to think of brighter futures with 529 plans
Tim Long is superintendent of Jay County Schools in Indiana.
Tim Long is superintendent of Jay County Schools in Indiana.

Jay County—a rural district in Indiana—has the highest child poverty rate (35 percent) in the state. We’ve suffered like most of the rural areas.

While our unemployment rate is just a little over 4 percent, there aren’t a lot of high-paying jobs. Many of them are low-level manufacturing and agriculture jobs, so people are leaving for the cities and urban areas.

But before anyone writes us off, they should know we have some of the highest test scores in the state of Indiana. In fact, we have an inverse correlation between poverty and performance, which is highly unusual.

Our kids have scored in the top 10 on state testing for the entire state in the last few years, and all our schools are A-rated. The kids work hard and our teachers work hard.

Unfortunately, only about 48 percent of Jay County students go to college, and that’s alarming. So we set out to change that culture.

The Jay County Promise is a program that encourages our district’s young people to continue their education beyond high school. It provides a 529 college savings plan to each Jay County student in K3.

Since launching the program, about 70 percent of our kids now start school with their own college savings account. Furthermore, many of these students will be the first generation of college-educated people in their family.

What makes our 529 different

These college savings plans have been around for a while, but our state has one of the most liberal tax advantages of any 529. The parents get a 20 percent rebate on their taxes up to $5,000. We built a whole theme around saving at the start of the 2015-16 school year. We call it “feeding the pig.”

All the kids get a plastic piggy bank when they sign up, and our local foundation starts their college fund with $25. Then we ask the kids to go out and raise $25 on their own. That $50 is then matched by $50 from our local businesses. We’ve raised about $100,000 from the community and local industry to use for this program.

Our principals got involved by making the sign up part of school registration. Becoming part of the Jay County Promise is as simple as filling out a form at registration.

The real measure of success is the level of parental involvement. Before the program, we had been ranked 54 in the state for percentage of youth with a 529 college savings account.

Now we’re ranked 4, and we anticipate we’ll reach No. 2 with the next class that we take in.

Laying the groundwork

The key to making the program work was “pre-seeding” the idea in the community, to help parents understand the value of the program. We did radio ads, social media, billboards and robocalls—anything we could think of to spread the word.

We also took 1,000 kids to Taylor University so they could see what a college looks like. The Jay County Promise has really become part of our culture.

One of the crowning moments of this program, for me, was when we had a booth set up at the local fair. I saw a little girl and her mother walk by, and I said, “Hey, would you like to sign up for a college savings account?” The mother said, “No. I don’t think so right now.”

So I said, “You get a free $25.” And the mother still resisted. But the little girl said, “Mommy, I want to go to college. You need to sign up so I can go to college.” The child was practically dragging her mother to the table.

That was a pretty telling moment, because that’s where you are going to make your difference. If the kids believe they’ve got a bright future, they’ll lead the charge on that.

The mother and daughter were really happy when they left. Mom said, “I’ve actually signed my daughter up for college and she’s only a kindergartner.” That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Tim Long is superintendent of Jay County Schools in Indiana.