This week, Southern Bancorp Community Partners (SBCP) released its paper, “Evaluating College Savings Plans: A Case Study on Arkansas and Mississippi,” to illustrate and examine the current options of college savings accounts offered in Arkansas and Mississippi and analyze the causes behind low participation in each state’s 529 plans. In 2013, SBCP sought a sustainable funding source for Arkansas’s Aspiring Scholars Matching Grant (ASMG) Program, a savings incentive for low-to-moderate income families that matches funds saved for a child’s college education in the 529 GIFT Plan, and investigated the possible creation of a matched 529 savings program in Mississippi.
In reviewing each state’s 529 plans, data showed overall participation was exceptionally low in both Arkansas and Mississippi. Although 529 plans have long been touted as highly valuable savings tools in helping families set aside funds for college costs, less than 5 percent of Arkansas and Mississippi children have a college savings plan established for their benefit. While Arkansas and Mississippi have offered 529 plans for almost two decades, each state ranks poorly in college degree attainment (Arkansas 49th; Mississippi 50th). The problem does not lie in a lack of college savings opportunities, but rather why more people do not take full advantage of the college savings opportunities offered in both states.
A recent study finds that children with savings accounts in their name, including 529 plans, could be up to seven times more likely to attend college if those children expressed an expectation to attend college– regardless of a family’s race, education level, or income. As demonstrated by the positive results of ASMG and other national studies’ findings, when a college savings program is marketed, supported, and administered well, more people may take advantage of it regardless of their household income.
Based on national research and findings from our 2013 survey of parents with elementary school-aged children, many low-to-moderate income households do not use 529 accounts because they are discouraged by the complex enrollment process, believe they do not make enough money to save, or are simply not aware of 529 accounts. But as indicated by the overall low participation rates, a majority of middle-to-upper income households opt not to use 529 plans either. As such, the state college savings plans are not reaching a significant number of children in their current structure.
Opportunities to save for post-secondary education are imperative for households of all income levels in Arkansas and Mississippi, as education can lay the foundation for stronger economic security and greater economic opportunity. SBCP has a long history of advocating for policies that provide opportunities for low-to-moderate income families to build wealth and enhance their quality of life. Strengthening child savings accounts programs and policies in Arkansas and Mississippi is just another way to ensure children in both states have the necessary financial tools to thrive.
To learn more about our efforts to improve the economic security of rural communities, we invite you to contact Tamika Edwards, Director of Public Policy, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arkansas State Treasurer’s Office. (2013); Mississippi State Treasurer’s Office. (2013).
CFED. (2013). Assets and Opportunity Scorecard. Available at http://assetsandopportunity.org/scorecard/.