Helping Students Save For—and Stay in—College

Aug 30, 2017, 12:00 PM, Posted by

A higher education degree has a big impact on future health. Here’s how one man is leveraging his personal experience to help students pursue a brighter future.

A young woman receives a diploma at her graduation ceremony.

Like many of the college-bound students I counsel at Normandy High School in Wellston, Mo., I was a first-generation college student. Thrilled to head off to Georgia Tech on a full scholarship, I had no idea I wasn’t actually getting a full ride with all costs paid for. Suddenly, I found myself on the hook for room and board, books, and other expenses. I took out loans, but they weren’t enough. I maxed out my credit cards. It took me years to pay off the debt.

I share this story with my students as a cautionary tale and to underscore the value of Viking Advantage, the college savings and preparation program they participate in. Each student in the program gets a college savings account called an Individual Development Account (IDA). For every dollar they save for college, up to $500, they get an additional $3 from my organization, Beyond Housing, and its funding partners—for a maximum total of $2,000. When students head to college, the money is sent directly to the college bookstore or cashier’s office for tuition, textbooks, dorm deposits, room and board, and supplies they need for classes.

Aleia Parker (Normandy Class of 2016), for example, saved up from her job at the 24:1 Cinema in Pagedale, Mo., with direct deposit straight to her IDA. She used her savings to pay for, among other things, a laptop and other items for her dorm room during her freshman year at Missouri State University.

For young people like my students, who come from low- to moderate-income, mostly African-American families, being able to afford college is not a given. The median family wealth of African-American families is much lower than that of white families. African-Americans are less likely than whites to attain a college degree. And students with lower socioeconomic status are also less likely to complete a college degree than their more affluent peers. At the same time, being able to afford and stay in college matters immensely. Graduating is an important step toward improving lifetime earnings, mental health, and other outcomes that will impact their health throughout their lives.

So I’m proud that this year, we were able to include 41 seniors—nearly a third of Normandy’s 136 graduating students—in the first-come, first-serve Viking Advantage program, and 40 of the students are headed to college this fall with one deferring college until after military service. That’s 100 percent, compared to 37 percent of Normandy students not in the program.

Learning to Make Sound Financial Decisions

Two thousand dollars may not seem like a lot, but any amount of savings is huge for my students. A nest egg can help reduce the stress that comes from worrying about how they will pay for school and all the associated expenses. It’s a buffer that can prevent them from dropping out due to their financial circumstances.

But we want our students to do more than save money. We want them to make sound financial decisions. So we equip them with a basic understanding of savings and checking accounts, credit and how overspending on credit cards now can affect them later, and what college financial aid covers and does not cover. Students receive this financial education through ECON Lowdown, an online learning program from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I also host workshops for students and parents on how to apply for scholarships and how to fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which the federal government and colleges and universities use to determine students’ eligibility for aid.

Graduating college is an important step toward improving lifetime earnings, mental health, and other outcomes that impact overall, lifelong health.

In the seven years of the program, we’ve provided 1,350 hours of financial education to over 270 students throughout program. Our students have saved over $175,000 for college. We’ve added more than half a million dollars ($525,000) to their savings.

Unfortunately, our students use up their IDA savings by the time they are sophomores. So we’re working to add an adult IDA program that would see our alumni through to college graduation.

A Helping Hand

Viking support also provides academic support and counseling through the free intensive ACT prep from The Princeton Review, financial support for entrance exam fees, and one-on-one counseling that I provide along with two Normandy High School advisers. I also work closely with parents. I acknowledge how hard it is balance parenting with working full-time to keep food on the table and the lights on. So I accommodate their busy schedules by being available through email, phone, text, Facebook, and video chat.

We help our students think about the future by taking them on college field trips, on top of those the high school hosts for all students. We expose them to careers through our partnerships with local businesses, including law firms, health care providers, and banks. Just being clear on what you want to do before you go to college can save time and money, I tell them. I changed my major three times, paying for courses that in the end wouldn’t count toward my degree.

My experience has shown me that students still need support when they’re in college: advice about things like changing a major, taking advantage of on-campus resources, and applying for—and being able to afford taking—internships. I’d love to have more counseling staff so we could offer them guidance for as long as it takes them to graduate.

Building a College-Going Culture

Beyond its affect on individual students, Viking Advantage has helped to build a college-going culture at Normandy High School. Many more students want to participate than I have funding for. Ideally, I’d include every Normandy senior in this program, not just those who express interest. (Some of our students are from other schools, as well.) But for the moment, we don’t have the financial or staff resources to support all of them.

One testament to our community’s support of the program comes from the recent donation of $1,500 from a teacher to add to the IDA savings of one of her students.

That’s the most important lesson: To get kids through college, we have to all work together. It takes a village, and we’re all a part of the village.

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About the author

James McGowan is coordinator of the Viking Advantage program at Beyond Housing, a community development organization in St. Louis, Mo.