They may be only starting kindergarten in the fall, but the first class of Alfond babies is already on its way to college.
Each one of these children born in Maine in 2008 has a 529 college savings account with at least $500 in it, a gift from the late philanthropist Harold Alfond. As the youngsters move through school, the accounts will remind their families that higher education is vital to their future, and that it’s never too early to start planning for one.
Alfond’s gift, unique in the nation, is more than just an act of kindness — it’s an attempt to tear down the cultural barriers to higher education that depress wages and slow economic growth in Maine.
These funds can grow to give every student a start in a two-year or four-year college or training program. Every child with an Alfond account will be reminded at least four times a year, when they get their quarterly statement, that education does not end with high school graduation. Planting that expectation at an early age may end up being more valuable to them than even the money in the accounts.
The Alfond College Challenge is now five years old, and has set up savings accounts for the benefit of 23,000 Maine residents, making up about 40 percent of the eligible babies born in Maine during that time. But as foundation officials announced Thursday, their goal is to reach every Maine baby, not just some of them.
Instead of making the accounts an option that families can sign up for in their child’s first hectic months, the foundation is going to set up an account for every newborn, and allow families to give back the money if they don’t want to participate. They expect this will speed up the rate of growth in the program, enrolling the second 12,000 babies in two years instead of five.
The program addresses one of Maine’s most persistent problems. Mainers graduate from high school at a respectable rate, but we are last in New England when it comes to attainment of higher education. That is a factor that companies consider when looking to relocate or expand.
The Alfond Foundation deserves credit for taking a leadership role in fixing this problem. It not only funds the accounts, but it also organizes employers to offer parents a way to contribute to a college fund through payroll deduction. And the foundation talks to those companies about contributing to the program in other ways by making funds available to children who become Maine residents but weren’t born here.
Philanthropic efforts are important, but they can’t do it all. There is still much the state should do about making higher education affordable, including adequate funding of the community colleges and university system. An excellent first step would be to make contributions to a college fund tax-deductible, encouraging more families to think about getting an early start.
The first class of Alfond babies will be college freshmen in 2027. It’s not too soon to get ready.