On the ground with the Promise

Monday, April 27, 2015

There are so many highlights from our two full days in Indiana. Here, some reflections on what we learned, how it's advancing our thinking about communities' roles in children's savings, and what the future might hold, for this CSA intervention that, from the middle of the country, is reshaping the field's understanding of so many dimensions of CSAs, from parent engagement to savings performance to identity formation. Thank you, Promise Indiana, for your transparency, hospitality, and authentic commitment to children's futures. You are examples of what's wonderful and hopeful and, well, promising, about children's savings!

  • Promise Indiana seeks to intervene in children's lives before their innate hopes are extinguished, in order to capitalize on aspirations and leverage them for greater achievement. Together, we wondered whether, in some cases, this may not need to happen even before kindergarten, particularly with what we know about the readiness gap, and in light of SEED OK findings regarding the potential of CSAs to improve social-emotional well-being even among very young children.
  • Promise Indiana's leaders have a healthy respect for the need for other, supportive interventions to increase children's educational prospects. They recognize that CSAs are not a panacea, in other words, but a critical complement to programs that similarly address achievement gaps and equip students with essential competencies. These conversations prompted our thinking about how CSAs might increase engagement in those interventions--financial education, early childhood education, academic enrichment--by increasing educational expectations, such that children benefit from a sort of multiplier effect. In this way, the full measure of a CSA may not result from the account ownership or asset accumulation experiences alone, but also from what those experiences do for children's ability to benefit from other investments.
  • One of the most exciting possibilities is the potential that current evidence regarding the educational effects of CSAs may be the lower bounds of these real outcomes, since there is no current research that captures the full impact of the group congruence that can result from children experiencing themselves as part of a college-saving community. The secondary datasets certainly don't reflect this, and neither does SEED OK, since, there, the children with CSAs are randomly distributed throughout the state. Even K2C hasn't yet been subjected to research that can tease out these community effects, and even K2C's model doesn't hinge as completely on community 'activation' as the approach in Promise Indiana. What might it mean for a child to know that her whole community is behind her post-secondary goals?
  • There are tremendous lessons to be learned from Promise Indiana's replication into new counties around the state. Promise Indiana is confronting questions that face the entire CSA field, at this moment of scaling, regarding the indicators that suggest not only that the intervention is working for individual children, but that it is being sustainably integrated into the policy structure, questions about the core elements on which the program cannot compromise, and the necessary inputs/partners to ensure successful adaptation and transfer to a new local context.

There were other 'aha' moments for me in Wabash County, including a question about how CSAs might connect to place-based initiatives, conversations about how to rethink existing scholarship investments for CSA purposes, and how CSAs might specifically respond to the policy challenge of 'unmet need' in the financial aid arena. I filled several notebook pages, complete with a lot of underlining, and exchanged cards with many people whose questions and insights will continue to inform my own thinking in this space.

The CSA field--and this country--are better off because the folks of Wabash County, Indiana are in it. It was invigorating and delightful to spend some time in the same space.

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