St. Louis Public Schools Pause College Kids Program

The board president and superintendent want answers from the treasurer about the city-sponsored college savings program

click to enlarge City Treasurer Adam Layne, who inherited College Kids from Mayor Jones, faced questions at a previous aldermanic meeting. - BRADEN MCMAKIN
City Treasurer Adam Layne, who inherited College Kids from Mayor Jones, faced questions at a previous aldermanic meeting.

The St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education is freezing its agreement for the College Kids Savings Account program while it gathers information from the city Treasurer’s Office.

The school board informally agreed during its meeting September 12 to take this step in large part because of a River City Journalism Fund investigation published in the RFT and St. Louis Public Radio on June 7. The story showed that only 15 percent of the more than 23,000 eligible students in the district were taking part, that the average account had only grown to $73, and that only the treasurer’s office was earning interest off millions of dollars in accounts — while students weren’t collecting a dime.

Antoinette “Toni” Cousins, the school board president, said the freeze was less a matter of having concerns and more about needing more information. 

“We don’t necessarily have concerns,” Cousins said of College Kids. “We’re just trying to get a full understanding of what services they provided since the conception of the program. We’re trying to get hard data and information from the beginning until now.”

Cousins added, “We are aware of the story that you ran, and other stories that have run in regard to the College Kids fund.”

The freezing of the school board’s memorandum of understanding means that St. Louis Public Schools will not share the names and other identifiers of district kindergarten students with the treasurer’s office, which has been the main way for students to enroll in College Kids.

“Until we’re able to get the information that we request of them, no, we’ll no longer provide that information,” Cousins said.

The school board has also suspended the memoranda of understanding governing other partnerships with the school district while it seeks information from them, Cousins said.

SLPS’ College Kids freeze won’t affect the 14 city charter schools that take part in College Kids and maintain separate memoranda of understanding with the treasurer’s office.

click to enlarge School Superintendent Keisha Scarlett began  her job on July 1. - Keisha Scarlett
Keisha Scarlett
School Superintendent Keisha Scarlett began her job on July 1.

The timing of the district’s freeze of these agreements is based, in part, on the recent hiring of Keisha Scarlett as the district’s new superintendent, Cousins said.

In a September 15 letter to Layne, Scarlett outlined a series of concerns about the district’s partnership with the treasurer’s office as it relates to the College Kids program, as well as the city’s upcoming Guaranteed Basic Income project, which will serve parents of school district students.

Scarlett asked for detailed information about College Kids’ operations in a list of seven bullet points, including both the current status of accounts and any research done into the program’s impact. She wrote that the district was “suspending SLPS’ involvement … until we gain a better understanding of its impact.” 

As for the Guaranteed Basic Income program, Scarlett made clear she was ready to proceed, but, in an unprecedented move, asked the city “to redirect a portion of the funding used to hire independent staff for this initiative to compensate our SLPS staff for covering these additional responsibilities.”

In late December, the city approved a Guaranteed Basic Income cash assistance program to be paid for with nearly $4 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Called the “Working Families Bill,” the pilot program, once it is launched, will be Missouri’s first guaranteed basic income program. It is expected to support 440 families with $500 checks for 18 consecutive months, according to Jones’ office. 

City Treasurer Adam Layne did not return a phone call and text seeking comment.

Tishaura Jones set up College Kids while serving as city treasurer in 2015. It became one of her signature achievements, touted during her successful 2021 mayoral run. 

College Kids is modeled on a larger college savings program in San Francisco. Both join dozens of state- and city-run programs nationwide that share a similar aim: motivate kids from moderate- and low-income backgrounds into developing a college-bound mindset. Like counterparts nationwide, College Kids is premised on research that shows children who begin saving for college, even in amounts of less than $500, are three times more likely to continue on to a post-secondary education than students who do not, and four times more likely to graduate.

Today College Kids has grown to more than 23,000 accounts.

Each year, the treasurer’s office automatically enrolls all the public- and charter-school kindergarten students in St. Louis city — 2,307 College Kids accounts were created in 2022 alone — providing them with savings accounts at Alltru Credit Union and “seeding” each with a $50 deposit.

The accounts are expected to grow year by year through city-funded incentives and charitable and personal donations. Participants can receive up to $100 in matching deposits and up to $50 for financial education. Once the student graduates from a public or charter high school in the city, the funds can be withdrawn for college or a trade school.

So far, the treasurer’s office has invested an average of almost $300,000 per year — a figure that includes seed deposits, incentives, staff salaries and donations — into the program. That adds up to about $2 million since College Kids began.

The treasurer’s office will likely spend at least another $1.5 million on the program before the first high school graduates touch any of the money, which won’t be until 2028 at the earliest.

But seven years after the program’s launch, College Kids has failed to attract much philanthropic investment, and all but a relatively few accounts have remained stuck at strikingly small balances.

The River City Journalism Fund story also found that only 12 percent of all parents and guardians of eligible students have submitted the consent forms needed to unlock the program’s additional cash incentives.

In addition, only 1 percent of College Kids accounts have reached at least $500 in savings — a total of 244 accounts out of 23,325.

Cousins cited the story and other media stories as a big reason for pushing to implement the pause in the agreement with the treasurer’s office.

“We do want to get as much detailed information and make sure that they make sense, and making sure that the service that they are saying is being provided to our families is actually being provided,” Cousins said. “We just want the detailed information to make sure it supports our students and families.”

The information that both Cousins and Scarlett are seeking about College Kids touches on things such as account growth, status of inaugural accounts, the treasurer’s office’s model for engagement, opt-out procedures, and the ability of families to transfer money saved in College Kids to other college investment accounts, such as 529 plans.

In August, the grandfather of a participant in the program had publicly complained about being unable to retrieve the money he’d invested into his grandson’s account. 

“We’re just trying to get a gauge on where the funds are, what’s the impact they’ve had,” Cousins said. “Has it been as impactful for the families as they’ve been saying? ... We’re just trying to do some restructuring for the district.”

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