Plan ahead to address college financial barriers

Over the coming month, thousands of Idaho high school seniors will graduate and face a life-altering decision: whether to pursue higher education. Idaho’s education stakeholders, elected officials, and leaders should be applauded for their continued work to increase the number of young people who go on. A recent study by the University of Idaho’s McClure Center indicated that these efforts are rightly focused on the most significant barriers, and that their efforts make a difference.

Christine Stoll

However, the McClure Center study and other recent news stories have demonstrated that financial concerns loom large for many families and students. When faced with the costs of college, the prospects of taking on debt at a young age, and the allure of a paying job, young people may often conclude that the math doesn’t work out. Why invest in education, taking on debt, when they can start earning a living now at a wage that seems decent? The choice is understandable, even though Idaho’s institutions offer some of the highest-value education in the country. Students who take on sizable debt can end up with monthly payments that impact their lives for decades.

At IDeal, Idaho’s 529 College Savings Program, we believe that a key element of addressing financial barriers is getting more families to plan ahead by saving. Over 18 years, a family that invests just $25 a month for a child can potentially make a sizable dent in the cost of higher education. Idaho taxpaying families can also lighten the load by using Idaho’s generous state tax deduction for account contributions and by asking other family members to give the gift of college savings for special occasions. By saving, families create a pro-higher education culture that makes it easier for their children to see the investment in college penciling out.

We also believe that it’s important to talk about the value of higher education in terms that go beyond dollars and cents. Last fall, IDeal spoke with a few dozen of our program’s biggest fans to determine why families who save for college do so. The parents and grandparents we spoke to, regardless of financial background or educational attainment, believed that having a college degree isn’t just about making more money. While they save ahead to reduce their children’s future financial burdens, these families also tell their children that the real value of higher education is that it offers the tools to choose your own path, to have a career in the pursuit of something greater than paying the bills.

Understandably, discussions in the public sphere about the value of higher education revolve around community and business concerns. The future of our economy depends on developing a highly skilled workforce. While we elevate these important concerns, let’s also keep in mind that higher education is about more than earning a living; it’s about cultivating a wider range of options in life. In addition to asking teenagers how much money they want to make, we should also keep asking, “What is your passion?” and, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Saving for college ultimately promotes freedom by giving our young people access to a much broader range of life choices and sources of happiness and satisfaction.

Written by Christine Stoll, the executive director of IDeal, Idaho’s 529 College Savings Program.