l are plentiful in higher-income families, so assets held in CSAs make little independent contribution (e.g., Elliott, Constance-Huggins, & Song, 2013 ).
5.2. College-Saver Identity Results
This study is not just concerned with whether or not parents expect their children to go to college. It is also concerned with whether or not parents are likely to act on an identity of orienting to a college-bound future for their children and whether or not parents are likely to act on that identity in a way that makes it more likely their children will form their own college-saver identity. According to IBM theory, people are likely to act on their college-saver identity when they demonstrate all three components of a college-saver identity (salience, normalization of difficulty, and group congruence) (e.g., Oyserman & Destin, 2010 ). Overall, 13 out of 18 parents (72%) demonstrated evidence of having formed a college-saver identity. To be classified as having a college-saver identity, parents have to demonstrate evidence in all three components. Examples of how families evidenced these three components are provided in the next few sections.
Among the 18 parents examined in this study, 83% made comments consistent with salience. In this study, identity salience is understood to mean a parent being more likely to work toward the goal of his/her child attending college―including opening a CSA and beginning to save―when images of the child’s future self are at the forefront of the mind. In line with this, interviewers looked for statements answering questions like these: Does some aspect of HACC make their child going to college, which is far away, feel close? Do parents talk about how being part of the program has fostered conversations with their child or others about college and/or the child’s future? Do parents talk about how they are now planning for their child to go to college? Do they talk about how the program has influenced them to act on their child going to college in some way now? Did HACC change their thinking about college saving as an activity to initiate when their children were young, instead of at some vague point in the future?
Heather, a middle-class college graduate, understands HACC as an opportunity for her to begin talking to her child about college, maybe much earlier than she might have otherwise. “For me,” she said, “I think it just means planning early. I think it just means maybe having conversations with my child earlier than maybe I would have. Maybe even earlier than my parents had with me.”In addition, she indicates that HACC has not only started her talking with her child about college earlier than she might have otherwise; it has also provided a way for her extended family to begin actively planning for her daughter to be able to go to college. “Yeah,” she said, “I think maybe that’s what it means and I think it also gets family members involved in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise maybe until that kid is graduating high school. People who wouldn’t have contributed and we’ve already had people contribute just at birthday parties and things like that because they know that we’re part of that program, so I feel like it just kind of brings that all together for everyone.”
Several parents suggest they would have opened a college savings account even without HACC, but they are not sure they would have done it so early. For example, Roberto, a middle-class father and teacher, said, “Well it certainly started us four years ahead of time. I think we have $2,000 in there and that certainly wouldn’t have happened at least until probably maybe now and who knows, I mean, I’m not 100% sure when he gets 5 that that’s your first thought, like we have to set up a savings plan for him to go to school.” This suggests that HACC is not only helping make college feel close for Roberto but that it has also provided a context for him to act by opening a NextGen account and depositing money sooner than he might have otherwise.
5.2.2. Normalizing the Difficulty of Paying for College
In this sample, 78% made comments consistent with HACC helping to normalize the difficulty of paying for college in their lives. Normalizing the difficulty of paying for college in this study is interpreted as meaning that the HACC CSA makes the concept of the child attending college feel more attainable to the parent. Usually this is conceptualized narrowly to mean that saving for college is seen by parents as important and not impossible. Therefore, putting effort into saving is meaningful rather than pointless.
Michelle, a divorced, low-income mother with a master’s degree, lacks information about some of the details of the CSA but understands that HACC is helping her pay for college. She described HACC as “free money for your child to use and a secondary education, whether it be books or college expense, or something, but it has to be after high school. And you can’t touch it until they go to college or some kind of secondary education. I believe it does work for vocational schools, but I’m not sure.” She added later in the conversation, “Just having you start―having anyone start thinking about college when they’re an infant is a great way to put a little bit here, a little bit there and, hopefully, make sure that they go there.”Even teacher Donna, who did not express expectations for her children to attend college, understood the potential of HACC to help pay for college:
Well just, I mean, to me, it was, I knew college was important and I used to work in manufacturing and then switched to teaching, and I knew that having enough money for college was going to be a stretch for three children and when we first started saving for college for my son, it was, I wouldn’t say money, but money wasn’t tight like it is now because it was one child and we were both working in corporate America. Now, neither one of us are working in corporate America and putting aside money for college is not really realistic, so it was one of those things that was a no-brainer decision.
Kristen, a high school graduate and single middle-class mother, clearly expressed the concept of normalizing the difficulty of paying for college for her daughter:
For me, it means a lot, because I didn’t necessarily have any sort of financial foundation to start college with. It was all financial aid and student loans, so I feel to go into your college career having to not worry so much about funding is huge. So for her, she’s going to have this little nest egg no matter how big or small or it is at the time, but it’s something. I think it’s probably an advantage just in the whole mentality behind furthering your education. You have money for it, it makes it a lot easier to make that decision.
This statement suggests that for Kristen, HACC is making saving for college feel important and not impossible.
5.2.3. Group Congruence
Among the 18 parents examined in this study, 83% expressed sentiments consistent with the construct of group congruence. Congruence with group identity occurs when an image of the self feels tied to ideas about relevant social groups (e.g., friends, family, cultural groups, geographic communities, and participants in a CSA program) (Oyserman & Destin, 2010) . In this study, group congruence refers to parents who 1) know others who see savings as a way to pay for their child’s college education; 2) know others saving for their children’s college―through HACC or elsewhere; 3) see evidence that others support their children’s goals of college attainment; and 4) are actively talking to others about HACC or about the importance of saving for their child’s college education.
Because HACC has only been in existence about seven years and children start in the program from birth, many Mainers are not yet participating in HACC. This can reduce the opportunities to identify with others in the program. Despite this, families still show signs of identifying with HACC and the notion that people like them are saving for their children to attend college. For example, in talking about her conversations about HACC with other people, Heather said the following:
Conversations with kids of my class, it has come up before, actually. They’re beyond the age of where it’s began in Maine and different people, it comes up every once in a while and they don’t know what I’m talking about, then I realize, “Oh, your children were not in the band where this began,” cause to me it’s like I’m so used to being surrounded by people who have kids around the same age and we all have our kids in it and we all sort of know what we’re talking about when we say Harold Alfond. We’re like, “Oh, we know what you mean.”
Similarly, Sadie, a high-income, educated mother who has saved a substantial amount in her children’s NextGen accounts, indicated that most of her friends and extended family are not only aware of HACC but are acting on the opportunity. She said, “Most of my conversations have been to friends and family that are expecting, just being like, ‘Hey, are you guys aware of this or that this is available?’ Most of them have heard about it. If not, they definitely have by the time they’ve had their children, but I know a lot of them have taken advantage of it as well.”
However, not all families express the sense that HACC is something other people like them are participating in. When asked about the kinds of conversations she has had about HACC, Lisa said, “We have actually not had any conversations with anyone, so I have no idea even among my group of friends of who participated and who hasn’t.” Kate also has not talked to others about HACC. She said, “I don’t think I’ve had any conversations about it with other people.” Michelle knows others like her who are participating in HACC. She said, “But most people I know have it. I mean most people are like, yeah, I mean it’s free.” However, when she talks to some people, they are scared away from the program because of the idea that they might be penalized for putting too much money in the account. “Don’t put money in it,” she said. “That’s the conversation I get from a lot of people. Don’t―it’s great that you have it. Do invest a lot of your money in it, because financial institutions―colleges will look at that when you fill out the FAFSA, and―which I don’t ... that’s an international thing, but when you fill that out, and it will count against you.”
5.3. Alignment of Educational Expectations and College-Saver Identity
5.3.1. Expecting Child to Attend College but No College-Saver Identity
Two parents expect their children to attend college but do not demonstrate they have formed a college-saver identity. Jamil, a widowed, low-income black mother who herself is a student in college, expects her children to attend college; however, she recognizes that college is only one path to success. She said, “I just want them to discover themselves. Whatever they like is what I want them to achieve in terms of education.” She also demonstrates that she sees HACC as helping her pay for college (difficulty as normal), “I think it’s important to start your kids’ college fund as early as you can, and as time progresses every penny that goes toward to your kids’ school is something that is highly important to every parent.” Moreover, there is evidence that HACC is bringing college to the forefront of her mind: “I really think [it] is a wonderful program to remind parents about activities like this.” But she also seems to claim that people like her do not save and go to college: “Because 80% of my people don’t consider those activities as early as that age. They wait until last minute, like, ‘We’re gonna pay $20,000 for college tuition?’ Whoa!”
For other parents, it is salience, rather than group congruence, that is notably absent in their thinking about higher education. When Liz was asked if she expects her younger daughter to attend college, she said, “Ideally, I’d like to see her go to a 4-year college, but anything would be good. I’d like her to continue her education after high school.” But when asked about saving for college, Liz said, “I mean, I wish I could say it was a giant priority, but paying our bills and making sure our children have food on the table and clothes and they are participating in the sports they want to play. That’s more important to us right now. We’re not really thinking about college yet. They are so young.” Similarly, when talking about her monthly account statements, Liz said, “Yeah, like, oh good. It’s grown some more, but it’s really, like I said, it’s kind of an afterthought. I’m more about in-the-moment type of person so I’m more concerned with day-to-day life.”
5.3.2. Not Expecting Child to Attend College but Demonstrating College-Saver Identity
The percentage of parents who demonstrate an active college-saver identity (72%) is higher than the percentage of parents (56%) who say they expect their child(ren) to attend college. Daphne, a lower-middle-income ($40,000 to $49,999) single mother with a 4-year college degree, is an example of a parent who demonstrates an active college-saver identity but does not expect her daughter to attend college. Her doubts appear to stem from her own life experience. When answering a question about whether she expected her daughter to attend college, she stated, “I don’t know. I try to take her lead on that.” Later in the conversation she provided some insight into why she was uncertain. She said, “I think my biggest thing would be if she, like me, if she met somebody and fell in love, and decided that wasn’t a priority anymore.” But she still wants to prepare her child for the opportunity to go to college even if she is uncertain about the future. This is evidenced in the following report: “Every year when she starts school we do this board for the first day of school that has her age, her teacher, what she wants to be when she grows up when you take a picture with it.” At the same time, HACC provides her with ways to act as though college is close and something her daughter needs to act on now (salience). She said, “We got one [a statement] a couple of weeks ago, and we looked at it together. I showed her you started with $500 and now look at that. That’s $900 and I forget what it was $900 something. It’s almost $1000 for you to use for college, that’s a lot of money.” The balance in the HACC account also helps Daphne perceive that paying for college is more possible than it would otherwise seem. She connects this money with being able to help pay for college when talking about what HACC does for her and her child: “I like to call it starter money for college, because ... and that it accrues interest. The other thing that I think is cool is that several times a year, they send us I want to use the term coupon.” Rounding out her college-saver identity with an understanding of college and college saving as congruent with her social groups, Daphne also talks with her friends in the community about HACC.
5.4. Development of a College-Going Culture
Despite HACC’s being relatively new, there is evidence in this sample that it might be helping to develop a college-going culture in Maine. While the formation of an actual culture take many years, what we are looking for in this studies is evidence that such culture may be developing, not that it exists already. As stated in the theory section, an indication of this is when families begin talking about their efforts to recruit others to open accounts and/or encourage them to save for college. An example of this is when Roberto, a middle-class male teacher, said, “I think we’ve had probably like three friends who’ve recently had kids and we’re like, ‘You got to sign up for it.’ Like, ‘it’s free money.’” Another example is Heather, who is talking to people in her extended family about saving for her daughter to go to college:
I would say like I said earlier, just involving everybody. I have a really big family and so I think their ability to sort of already contribute and feel like they are contributing, and I’m trying to move past birthdays that are all presents. Much to my child’s sadness, I’m sure, and anger most likely when she turns 5, I want it to be experiences for her and not things, and so I think this contributes to that mentality that like you can plan for her future and help us plan for her future, and not having everything just be junk and stuff. It does contribute to that philosophy that my husband and I have. In that way, that’s been nice.
At the same time, lack of information or misinformation in some cases may be hindering HACC from reaching its full potential to develop a college-going culture. For example, Hellen said, “Well, I told you that one conversation where I was told―it was actually a daycare provider was telling me that it doesn’t go to [pay for] trade schools or community colleges. It only goes to college.” She was not sure about the validity of the information but pointed to the lack of information out there concerning the details:
Normally, I would just Google it. I would Google and go from there, but it’s not really good. Every time I go to get information it’s the same limited information. I see same information all around. It’s like trying to get people to just sign up versus actually give you information about what it is. I mean if we end up putting all this money in there, and they don’t go to a 4-year college, what happens to it?
However, among this sample of HACC participants, nearly all families spoke about recruiting others into the program or recruiting family members to help save for their child’s college education.
Prior to discussing the results of this study, it is important to point out that its most significant limitation is its highly homogenous sample: largely white, educated, middle-class men and women, working as teachers. While this limitation raises significant concerns about the generalizability of these findings. However, the main purpose of this study is not to draw generalizable conclusions; instead, it is descriptive in nature. The authors sought to better understand whether interviews would reveal evidence of a theoretical model, identity-based motivation. Although there is a substantial body of evidence around IBM (for a review, see Oyserman & Destin, 2010 ), few studies specifically examine identity-based motivation as a way of better understanding parental educational expectation within CSA programs.
Descriptive findings from this study resemble previous research on the relationship between CSAs and parental educational expectations (Kim et al., 2015) . Among the families in this study, 56% expect their child to graduate from high school and go on to complete some form of postsecondary education. However, when the college-saver identity construct was used to measure parental educational expectations instead of asking parents if they expected their child(ren) to attend college, it rose to 78%.
Our findings suggest that low-income families in HACC describe having positive educational expectations. Some evidence also indicates that for some parents, whether they expect their child to attend and complete college is shaped by their child(ren)’s expectations for themselves or in how they are performing in school. For example, Michelle said the following:
And I knew several parents in the area that just didn’t do it. And I’ve often inquired like, “Why would you not do it? It’s free money.” Why would―I mean that doesn’t make sense to me. And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know if my kid’s going to college.” Don’t agree.
This is similar to the findings of Elliott and Friedline (2013) , who found that parents are more likely to contribute to their children’s college financing when the child expects to graduate from college. They state, “This suggests that among four-year college goers it remains important for parents that students provide them with a type of insurance that it is safe to invest” (p. 146).
Our results also provide evidence that families in HACC describe developing a college-saver identity. Specifically, these parents mostly expressed a belief that their child is collegebound and that saving is a way to help overcome the difficulty of paying for college. While Elliott, Sherraden, Johnson and Guo (2010) did not examine the effects of CSAs on parents’ college-saver identity, they did find evidence that children who were in a CSA program were more likely to perceive savings as a way to pay for college than children in a comparison group.
Evidence that CSA programs affect parental educational expectations early in a child’s life may be particularly significant since the educational expectations of many disadvantaged parents tend to diminish as they confront obstacles to their children’s success (Mistry, White, Benner, & Huynh, 2009) . Therefore, intervening before these obstacles can undermine parents’ engagement and investment in their children’s educational development may be particularly important. For example, researchers have found that mothers’ expectations of their preschool children are positively associated with their children’s sixth-grade math and vocabulary proficiency (Hess et al., 1984) . Entwisle et al. (2005) found that higher expectations among low-income families may be associated with higher college completion rates. In addition, using the IBM framework to understand the relationship between CSA programs and parental expectations may provide a more complete understanding than merely asking parents if they expect their child to attend and complete college. However, it is important to emphasize that this study does not provide conclusive evidence, and more research is needed.
This research was supported by grants from the Harold Alfond Foundation, the John T. Gorman Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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