I came to the Aspen Action Forum with a mission: to leverage the collective insights of the Forum participants in order to provide guidance as to how to take a powerful social innovation to scale in a sustainable way. The focus of the workshop was on children's savings accounts (CSAs) -- matched savings accounts opened for children as early as kindergarten for the purpose of building aspirations and financial resources for post-secondary education. This product has captured the imagination of local and state officials, federal policymakers, educational leaders, financial institutions and philanthropists who see it as a tool with the potential to increase college access and success and advance economic mobility in a time when income and wealth inequality are at historic levels.
Over the past several years, public sector and nonprofit leaders have launched programs in San Francisco, CA and Jackson, MS, Nevada and Maine, and by nonprofits in New York City and Pittsburgh, with many other initiatives in the planning and launch stages. The number of CSAs estimated to open by the end of 2014 exceeds 100,000, with current projections equaling 600,000 accounts by 2018, assuming there is no new program growth, which is highly unlikely. The vision of so many children starting school with these accounts is a wonderful thing. The challenge is how to build the account infrastructure, operating expertise and financial incentives to ensure that these accounts are opened, managed and expanded successfully.
How to address this question of sustainability was the issue I posed to the 20-odd leaders who generously volunteered their time and insights at my Action Workshop. They began by asking penetrating questions on every aspect of the product design, implementation and outcomes and then followed this with a highly spirited and interactive conversation.
The technology entrepreneurs advocated for the creation of a single account platform that could be easily adopted and efficiently administered to set an operational standard for the field. The marketing gurus underscored the power of brand to build awareness and incentivize philanthropists to match the savings of low-income kids, recommending that the CSA name be replaced with something more aspirational. The education professionals outlined how best to integrate CSAs into schools while starting small with financial goals that use savings to complement more traditional sources of funding for college, such as scholarships and Pell grants. The international leaders were the most passionate about the idea and strongly endorsed the need to organize and raise the voices of the parents in front of their local political leaders to convince them that supporting CSAs was a necessity. The policymakers in the room affirmed that this was an idea with such bipartisan appeal that it was eminently worth spending time promoting federal polices for CSAs.
But perhaps the most important message I received during the workshop was how deeply the people in the room believed that providing savings accounts to children was a necessary and effective approach to increasing educational and economic opportunity. By the end of the session, at least half of the participants offered to personally assist in strengthening the sustainability of CSAs. Their offers included product development services, branding advice, policy advocacy and access to champions -- and all from people who had known me less than 24 hours, with some only having met me that morning. This underscored the power of a committed community to not only problem solve together, but also to share their political, social and financial capital if they are so inspired.
I leave Aspen with a long list of follow-up tasks and a great appreciation for the organizers of the Aspen Action Forum and the members of the community who bring their hearts and minds to the challenges faced by their peers. I can imagine no better jury to rely on to decide my future.