Student loan debt was a problem long before Occupy Wall Street protesters added it to their list of grievances. The recession hit the younger end of the workforce particularly hard: the combination of a jobless recovery, rising tuition bills and mounting debt have become a crushing burden. Total student debt today is approaching one trillion dollars — exceeding the balance due on credit cards — and is second only to mortgage debt in American households. In fact, it's the only class of debt in which defaults are increasing. Given the state of the economy, much of this debt will never be repaid. It will remain an albatross weighing down an entire generation.
It's time to look ahead to a new paradigm, in which student loans are not the only answer. Let's consider the power of savings. Currently, we know scores of students never make it to college because they perceive it as financially out of reach. Others bail when they realize the debt burden will be too high. The cost proportionality of getting an education compared to the amount of borrowing necessary to finance it is way out of line. Students need a way to finance college without compromising their future financial well-being. Beyond efforts to limit tuition growth and create affordable educational options, there are significant advantages for placing a greater emphasis on savings.
A growing body of compelling research has illuminated the connection between savings and educational outcomes. Even modest-sized savings and asset holdings have the potential to alter the way people think about the future, which can lead to productive changes in behavior. For example, children with a savings account in their own name are more likely to have higher math scores than children without a savings account — scoring on average almost 9 percent higher.)
Studies have also shown savings are linked to expectations of high school graduation, academic achievement, and pursuit of postsecondary education.
Providing access to savings accounts can create a financial stake in college for students, and it’s a more effective strategy than simply advising them to save: if students have a tangible place to store funds, they are three to six times more likely to attend four-year colleges than youths with no savings. These accounts impel children to think about their postsecondary education. Opening the door to college motivates performance in certain ways, like staying in school and studying harder. And the earlier this starts, the better. Account ownership helps make the savings purpose more salient. We have observed that a college-bound identity takes shape long before children fully understand what it even means to go to college.
The concept of children's savings accounts has begun to take hold in a diverse set of countries including Britain, Singapore, Canada, and South Korea. In the U.S., 529 College Savings Plans have proven to be popular vehicles as earnings on deposits are tax-free. Unfortunately, to date they have had a limited reach among many households with modest incomes. That’s largely because the strength of the incentive to save is based on how much a family earns. If the family has a small tax bill or gets a refund, the incentive is particularly weak.
We should look for ways to advance more inclusive policies that create opportunities for more children. Early investments by the federal government in children’s future college plans may be less costly than bailing them out as young adults. Instead of waiting for parents to open accounts, let's make sure every child has an account to call their own.
One legislative proposal seeks to do just that. The America Saving for Personal Investment Retirement and Education (ASPIRE) Act  would create accounts for every newborn. Each account would be seeded with a $500 contribution, and children in families earning below the national median income would receive matching funds for contributions of up to $500 each year. After account holders turn 18, they would be able to make tax-free withdrawals for multiple purposes, including the costs of postsecondary education. This is an approach that casts a wide net and allows all kids, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, to have a foundation for building their future.
How can the government fund these children’s savings accounts in the current economic slowdown? Through a system of tax preferences and direct spending, we already allocate $56 billion a year helping students pursue postsecondary education. Compare this to the $3.5 billion estimated cost to fund the ASPIRE Act during its first year. This approach can be tried at the local and state level. In fact, the City of San Francisco has begun offering each child entering public school a savings account. Their Kindergarten to College  initiative (K2C) is a relatively low-cost investment designed to trigger significant returns, through increased savings, greater college access and degree completion, and lower debts.
If we think of children's savings accounts as a way to reduce ever-rising public expenditures on student loans, we can envision a more efficient, more hopeful, and more productive strategy for funding higher education. Instead of going into debt, young people could save money in advance.
Reid Cramer directs the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation. William Elliott III is a New America Foundation Fellow and an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas. This op-ed coincides with the release of a four-part series of reports, "Creating a Financial Stake in College,"  which focuses on the relationship between children's savings and improving college success, which is authored by Elliott and published by the New America Foundation and the Center for Social Development at the Washington University in St. Louis.