10/29/2013 06:09 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Lessons From UNICEF on Halloween: How Small Donations Can Support Big College Dreams

My earliest experience with charity was collecting pennies and nickels in my orange UNICEF box on Halloween. Even as a child, I remember how important it felt to pick up my box at school. I relished watching those coins drop into the UNICEF box as much as I delighted in the candy filling my trick or treat bag. For me, Halloween became as much about helping a needy child in a distant country as counting my sugary Halloween bounty.

Today, as an adult who tries to count how much candy I don't eat, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can leverage charity in the United States in more effective ways -- to not only provide help to the hungry and homeless but to set struggling children and families on a permanent path out of poverty. Unlike the faraway kids who benefited from UNICEF, these children reside in our own cities and towns, in neighborhoods where hopes and dreams are too often halted by the knowledge that opportunities available to children in high income families are not available to them.

In fact, from the time they are very young, many low-income children (and their parents) assume that the best ticket out of poverty -- a college education -- is prohibitively expensive and therefore not a realistic option.

Such thinking is all the more tragic because with very little effort, each of us has the power to change that scenario. New research shows that low-income students with just $500 or less in college savings are three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate than those without a savings account.

Of course, even saving a small amount is challenging for families who in a given month may have to choose between paying the heating bill and putting food on the table.

That's where we can help.

My organization recently developed an online platform called the 1:1 Fund that allows donors, large and small, to help low-income families save for college by matching their contributions in special children's savings accounts. During the past few years, a growing number of cities and states have launched programs that provide students with children's savings accounts, seeded typically with $50-$100 and earmarked specifically for college. Through the 1:1 Fund, donors help young students and their families grow those accounts with dollar for dollar matches.

The accounts give low-income families the confidence that post-secondary education is a real and attainable goal -- and the incentive to plan and save. Once they know college is possible, students are more likely to take the right courses and exams, win the best scholarships and learn about other forms of financial aid.

They are students like La Terra Cole, a former foster child who participated in a financial education and matched savings account program called the SEED Initiative and is now in her third year of law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "The account gave me a new way to think about the future. I wouldn't have to be defined by poverty," said Cole. "We need to build in a culture of college expectation and then enroll kids in programs like the one I participated in. Less than 3 percent of kids in foster care go on to complete a college degree so we need programs on a larger scale."

Encouraging families to save can also significantly help decrease college debt. Currently, less than 10 percent of students from low-income families graduate from college by their mid-twenties, in large part because they lack the savings to help make up the difference between financial aid and the full cost of tuition. Again though, even a small amount of savings can pay big dividends. Studies show that just $23 a month in a children's savings account grows into $16,000 in savings by age 18, significantly decreasing the burden of college debt.

It is rare to be able to draw such a clear line between charitable dollars and genuine impact. So this Halloween, particularly as UNICEF boxes have become a less common sight, perhaps we should all make a commitment to contribute a few dollars a month to help send a child to college. After all, every child deserves a chance at a real future, but without our help many won't get there.

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