October 28, 2020 – Queens, NEW YORK
By Mark Treskon, Senior Research Associate, The Urban Institute
It’s getting more difficult to move up the economic ladder in the United States. Although higher education has long been considered a key tool to support economic mobility, disparities in graduation and subsequent outcomes persist.
Tools, such as 529 accounts, are designed to promote saving for higher education, as are programs such as Child or College Savings Accounts (CSAs) and initiatives such as free tuition. But even thoughtfully designed programs face challenges in reducing inequities. For example, higher-income families accrue greater benefits of 529 accounts than lower-income families, and the nontuition costs of college remain a significant barrier (PDF) for college completion, even if a student receives free tuition.
Place-based initiatives that focus on the role of neighborhoods in enabling economic mobility have shown some promise in advancing equity, but replicating such intensive interventions across communities presents resource- and logistics-related challenges.
The NYC Kids RISE Save For College Program, a public-private community partnership, is one effort to address these challenges. The Save for College Program model draws on CSA programs, financial capability and education interventions, and research on neighborhood effects and social capital. The program operates in School District 30 in Queens—one of the nation’s most diverse school districts, where 53 percent of the student body is Latinx, 19 percent is Asian, 16 percent is white, and 9 percent is Black. It links universal college scholarship and savings accounts, school-based programming, community engagement and asset building, and systems-level changes to support and reinforce college-going identities, build assets, support and develop a sense of community belonging, and enhance social capital. The program’s long-term goal is to support local innovation and customization and be “a community driven wealth building platform” embedded in homes, schools, and neighborhoods throughout New York City.
We recently worked with NYC Kids RISE and the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity to design an annual parent/guardian survey and evaluate and assess the program’s operations and approach to data collection. Our new report overviews how it’s working and offers metrics and methods to track the program’s effectiveness over time. This evidence can help inform the program as it expands and as participants get older. It can also inform practitioners and researchers in other cities interested in undertaking efforts similarly designed to promote students’ upward mobility. Here are a few key insights we learned.
- Multidisciplinary place-based programs are both promising and challenging to implement. The Save for College Program’s multidisciplinary approach, combined with its vision for long-term, decentralized, community-driven implementation, makes it a unique case for research and evaluation. As the Save for College Program expands through New York City, this community-driven platform model may help it more effectively reflect the diversity of different neighborhoods.
- Evaluating all potential pathways to success—including education and financial stability and capability—is key. Educational expectations and attainment, financial stability and capability, and neighborhood context are all deeply related, but researchers tend to examine them separately. To fully support participants, program staff and researchers must understand how different program activities—whether family savings, educational expectations and attainment, or school and community support for higher education—relate to and potentially reinforce one another.
- Accounting for gaps in racial and economic equity is key. Our education system does not exist in a vacuum; students, families, and educators are embedded in broader social, economic, and political systems that affect academic outcomes.
For example, the heath, social, and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit working class communities and communities of color (PDF) hardest, and many families participating in the Save for College Program fall into one or both of these groups. These disparities influence students, families, and educators’ access to resources such as child care, food security, technology and internet access, and employment opportunities and flexible job schedules. Programs like Save for College must account for these factors to understand the challenges faced by families with school-age children and more effectively promote postsecondary attainment and economic mobility.
Although research clearly shows how inequities are built and reproduced, understanding how best to address them remains a challenge. A platform like the Save for College Program aims to address factors influencing student economic outcomes and reflect the unique situations of different communities. The program presents an opportunity for researchers to examine how an initiative with multiple intervention points builds on and synthesizes different approaches to create a unique, multilevel model for promoting economic opportunity and mobility. Understanding the model and measuring its effects over time will help NYC Kids RISE and other programs more effectively build assets, improve educational outcomes, and address inequalities.