City launches $6.5 million universal college scholarship program for NYC kindergarteners – Gothamist

Scholarships

The city’s expansion of a scholarship program for kindergarteners will disperse $6.5 million to 65,300 kids this year.

The Save for College Program will automatically give each kindergartener in New York City public and participating charter schools a $100 deposit into a scholarship fund invested in a NY 529 Direct Plan savings account which can only be used for higher education expenses. 

The program, administered by the nonprofit NYC Kids RISE in partnership with the city, will renew each year for new classes of kindergarteners. This year, 97% of the city’s estimated 67,320 kindergarten students were automatically enrolled into the program, with 3% choosing not to participate.

Families can participate in further actions like opening their own savings accounts to earn another $200 for the scholarship funds.

Mayor Eric Adams hailed the program, which began under the tenure of former Mayor Bill de Blasio, as a “tangible and practical” way “to reduce the racial wealth gap.”

“The Save for College Program can reduce the amount that students and families have to borrow in student loans, combatting the student debt crisis that has disproportionately impacted students of color,” Adams said in a press release Wednesday. “I am proud to announce the activation of thousands of scholarship accounts, bringing New York City students one step closer to financial assets.”

The scholarship program started as a pilot in District 30 in Queens five years ago, where more than 13,500 kids have now accumulated a total of $7 million through a combination of the scholarships, additional support from foundations and philanthropy, and family savings, according to City Hall. 

In particular, “more than 750 students in public housing developments throughout Western Queens have an NYC Scholarship Account, and have collectively accumulated nearly $350,000 towards their educational futures,” NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ said in a release.

Nadia Landy’s 10-year-old daughter Zhyla is among these beneficiaries through PS 234Q in Astoria.

“Because I had that experience of college, I know how important it is to have a little bit of funds, because you don’t want no surprise bill or have to face all these loans…or a whole lot of debt later on,” Landy said. “So I feel like these are important steps to build while the kids are young.”

Onalis Hernandez, the principal of PS 149 in Jackson Heights, said the scholarship funds make a huge difference for her school community. 

“Many of my students are what we call ‘doubled up,’ where more than one family lives in an apartment. Eighty-six percent of my school is Latino, a large immigrant population,” Hernandez said. “We do have a population that struggles financially, and that perhaps this idea of college is not anything that they ever entertain, because it wasn’t attainable for them.” 

One benefit of the NYC Kids RISE program is that students can use scholarship funds without their families having to set up bank accounts which would require documentation, according to Hernandez.

“We have a large immigrant population, perhaps a lot of our parents may not be documented, and so had a fear of coming in contact with anything that would have a record and therefore [they’re] saying, ‘How are we going to do this program without getting that type of information?’” Hernandez said. 

The scholarship fund program is specifically designed to only require the same information needed to enroll in public school, like address and birthdate, but no Social Security number or proof of legal status is necessary. If families want to set up their own 529 savings accounts, they’ll need to follow bank requirements on documentation.

City Hall has designated May as “NYC Scholarship Month,” and schools will be working with kindergarten families to learn more about the scholarship fund program, city officials said.

The impacts of even a modest college savings fund are immense, city officials said in the press release, citing research that “children with a college savings account of just $1 to $500 are three times more likely to go to college and more than four times more likely to graduate.”

“Part of this program is really designed to make sure that every child knows that their family, their school community, the city, their extended neighborhood, has an expectation of a bright future for them and an expectation of college and career,” said Sideya Sherman, commissioner of the mayor’s equity office, in a phone interview.

There’s also a real benefit to families who haven’t been able to save for college, to help them give their children an opportunity, said Hernandez, the principal of PS 149.

“It’s an immense thing that they’re giving and that they may not comprehend at this time. But then in these tiny steps, they’re giving them choice,” she said. “They’re giving them life. They’re giving them possibilities.”