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Could A $1,000 Fund For First Graders Make College A Reality?

Max Yoder of The First Fund wants to find out what happens when you take a first grader from a low-income family, set her up with a college fund, and educate her family about investing in her future.

For many children of middle-class or privileged backgrounds, it’s presumed practically from birth that they'll go to college. But in economically disadvantaged families, college is far from a sure thing: 79% of students from America's richest families graduate from college, while only 11% of the poorest students do.

Max Yoder

Which is why Max Yoder, founder of The First Fund, came up with a creative plan, a sort of "seed funding" for youngsters’ future college educations. Early in 2013, Yoder was in the middle of bringing his corporate education product Lesson.ly to market and found himself with pockets of downtime. He was dating a young woman who taught first grade in West Lafayette, Indiana, and frequently found himself going on Fridays to hang out with the kids. One stood out, a boy named Andrew.

"He had a lot going for him personality-wise, but didn’t have a lot going for him on the socioeconomic side," says Yoder. Yoder began to mentally press fast-forward on Andrew’s life, and wondered whether a kid with such energy and promise might not have the funds or encouragement to reach his full potential. "That spurred the idea," the 25-year-old graduate of Indiana University Bloomington recalls. "How do we put college on the table for kids who don’t have college on the table?"

Yoder’s idea is fairly simple. Step one: Find first graders who show aptitude and promise but whose families have some financial hardship (the metric Yoder uses is students receiving reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program). Through private donations, put $1,000 in a 529 savings plan on each kid’s behalf. Then—crucially—kick off a relationship with this kid and his family about savings, investment, and higher education. "We’ll work with parents on a monthly basis," says Yoder, "teaching things like compound interest. 'Did you know that if you put five dollars a month in, it grows to X, 20 bucks grows to Y, and 30 bucks grows to Z?' Some have never had the luxury to see that happen." First Fund serves as the benefactor of the account, which will be released to the youngster when he graduates or turns 18.

When he first got the idea, people counseled Yoder that it was extremely difficult to start a not-for-profit and that he’d be buried in mounds of paperwork. He’d do better, they said, to partner with an existing organization. So he called up a few. "It’s not that I got laughed at," he says, "but more that I just got told that scholarships are not for first graders—they’re for high schoolers, and that’s just how it is." Feeling that these notions were arbitrary, Yoder soldiered on alone and filed for tax-exempt status for the organization. Pending IRS approval in the next few months, the first scholarships can be awarded in November. So far, five scholarships have been set up; one was funded by Yoder.

With First Fund, Yoder steps into the contentious debate surrounding the ways in which private money can or can’t help solve systemic inequities in the American public education system, a debate that has largely centered on charter schools. Geoffrey Canada’s , for instance, uses private funds to attempt to break generational poverty in the New York neighborhood; though the program has had some success, critics question how broadly replicable the model can be. Yoder concedes that he’s a "one-man operation" for now and that the nascent organization doesn’t have plans to scale aggressively. He’s more interested in testing the model and expresses an interest in partnering with academics to bring more of the rigors of a longitudinal study to the process.

As with many a small, private initiative, it may be what First Fund symbolizes—the images and stories it evokes—that have the potential to create the greatest change. Imagine being a first grader of limited means, perhaps just beginning to realize the ways in which your family is different from the wealthier ones—and then being told that someone sees promise in you, and has set aside more money than you can fathom as an expression of that faith in that promise. And imagine being the parent of that child, and the ways in which that commitment of time and resources might in turn drive you to change how you think about your child’s future.

The idea, Yoder admits, may be a long shot. How do you know if a seven-year-old will be bound for college, anyway? (Viewers of Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries are witnesses to the many curve balls life can throw just between a child’s seventh and 14th years.) But "First Fund doesn’t fail if a kid graduates and decides college is not the right fit for them," says Yoder. "It fails if it doesn’t provide the right insight into what possibilities there are for an individual."

It’s about changing perceptions, more than anything, about discourse more than dollars. "I’m concerned that for a lot of kids, college is not on the table, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people aren’t talking about college as you grow up, it’s a much more difficult path," says Yoder. "Let’s put college on the table where it wasn’t there before."

[Image: Flickr user fatguyinalittlecoat | Clay Reinken]