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How this Queens community built $1,000 college savings accounts for all its kids

It’s part of a new program to build wealth for low-income kids across New York City—with a little help from their communities.

How this Queens community built $1,000 college savings accounts for all its kids
[Source Images: Nosyrevy/iStock, Nerthuz/iStock]
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In 1949, when she was 14 years old, Claudia Coger dropped out of high school. Despite being an A+ student and having skipped two grades, she knew that college was out of reach—she was the second of 10 kids, growing up in Sumter County, Florida, and there was no indication, she says, that scholarships would be available to her. It’s a reality for too many kids: Students from low-income families are 2.4 times more likely to drop out of high school than those from middle-income families, and 10 times more likely than students from high-income families, which affects how much they can earn out of school and contributes to the racial wealth gap.

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Now 85, Coger is helping ensure that kids in the Astoria Houses, the public housing complex in Astoria, Queens, where she’d lived since moving to New York at 20, don’t have to make that same choice. Coger helmed a fundraising effort to give the 184 kindergarten, first, second, and third graders in that complex  $1,000 toward savings accounts for their college education or career training.

That $1,000 is added to savings accounts those students already have through NYC Kids Rise, a nonprofit that runs the Save for College program. That program, in partnership with the City of New York and the Department of Education, sets up kindergarteners with college and career savings accounts invested in the NY 529 plan—a state-run investment account dedicated solely to paying for post-secondary education—and kicks those accounts off with initial $100 scholarships. According to the nonprofit’s preliminary projections, the average student enrolled in the program will have about $3,000 in their accounts by the time they graduate from high school.

In 2014, before the Save for College program began, there was just one 529 account for every 91 children in New York City’s lowest-income neighborhoods; In the highest-income neighborhoods, one in four children had an account. “When you find that evidence of the racial wealth gap—and this is the college and career vehicle for the country—that is pretty glaring,” says Debra-Ellen Glickstein, executive director of NYC Kids RISE.

Glickstein describes the Save for College program as a “decentralized economic wealth-building platform,” one focused on driving resources to those who have been historically excluded from those opportunities. These savings accounts are a bit like the concept of baby bonds: government-funded savings accounts started for every child at birth, pitched as a way to close the jarring racial wealth gap. The funds in an NY 529 plan can only be accessed and used for post-secondary education, though there’s no age limit to using the funds. Like other investment funds, account holders can choose between different investment portfolios, which provide returns that vary between 3% and 11%.

“Just by going to public school in this school district, you now have a financial asset, a financial resource, for college or career—and you’re only in kindergarten,” she says. And every little bit helps: Research has shown that a child in a low-income household with a college savings account under $500 is more than three times more likely to enroll in college, and four times as likely to graduate from college, compared to a child with no savings account.

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Since the program launched in 2017 in School District 30 in Queens, there are around 13,000 students who now have NYC Kids RISE savings accounts—including current kindergarteners and first, second, and third graders who got accounts as kindergarteners. Those student savings accounts include a combined $5.3 million, from individual and community investments. (The nonprofit launched with a $10 million gift from the Gray Foundation.) “It’s about the initial money that every kid gets, it’s about families saving in ways that make sense for them, and then it’s about the community and other institutions and other entities coming in to drive additional resources,” Glickstein says.

Coger was one of those forces who drove additional resources to these savings accounts. As the resident association president of Astoria Houses, a public housing complex in Queens, she led the fundraising effort for that $184,000. Coger had been working with Glickstein when the program was launched and knew she always wanted to increase those kids’ funds; in June of 2020, Coger launched a GoFundMe urging people to invest in the futures of these children. Donations poured in from local businesses, such as barre3 in nearby Long Island City, and from Astoria Houses alumna and other Queens residents.

“In our discussions, we were talking about the dropout [rates] in Black and Hispanic communities, when our young people get into high school,” Coger says. In 2019 in New York City, the dropout rate was 8.3% for Black students and 10.6% for Hispanic students, compared to 4% for white students. “We were thinking, how could we encourage kids to stay in school and pursue their own goals, and have a vision to press on?” They initially planned to raise $134,000, to help the 134 first, second, and third graders. By the beginning of February 2021, that fundraiser reached its expanded goal of $184,000, so that kindergarteners could be included as well.

This community fundraising is an example of a core tenet of NYC Kids RISE. “A very important piece of this work is about, ‘How do we share social, political, and financial capital within a neighborhood and across a community?” Glickstein says. The nonprofit works to engage communities to directly support the futures of these kids, for instance by launching campaigns to bring in donations for “community scholarships,” which allow local businesses and neighbors to contribute directly to kids’ savings accounts.

For Nadia Landy, who lives at Astoria Houses and whose 8-year-old daughter, Zhyla, is in the program, that outpouring showed how much her community is willing to support her and her family. And her daughter noticed it too. “She was like, ‘They’re actually thinking about me,'” Nadia says. “It makes her want to do more.”