KENDALLVILLE — Even as students reacclimate themselves to being back in the classroom, or as they count down the precious few days left before returning to school, a new program in Noble and LaGrange counties aims to help them envision what life could be like after they’ve obtained their diplomas.
Through the Noble and LaGrange counties Promise program administered by the Cole Center Family YMCA in Kendallville, kindergarten through third-grade students in public and private schools, as well as those who are home-schooled, can sign up for CollegeChoice 529 accounts — and parents don’t even need to put down any of their own money to start.
The purpose of Promise, said Casey Weimer, CEO and executive director of the Cole Center Family YMCA, is to get young students — and their parents — to consider their dreams and aspirations beyond high school, and it gives them a financial tool that can assist in making those dreams a reality.
“The real hope is to try and move the needle on postsecondary education attainment, whether that be a trade school or a college degree program,” Weimer said.
It is an offshoot of the Wabash County Promise program that was started last year by Clint Kugler, CEO of the Wabash County YMCA. Since its formation, that program has already increased the percentage of students under the age of 18 with a CollegeChoice 529 account to 72 percent. It also gave young K-3 students a taste of what college life is like by taking them on a tour of Manchester University in North Manchester.
The program was successful enough that it was expanded and is now being piloted this year in Noble, LaGrange and Whitley counties. It has garnered the support of local economic development organizations and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which believes the Promise program naturally fits into its Big Goal Collaborative effort to increase the percentage of the region’s residents with a two- or four-year degree, or some sort of professional credential or certification, to 60 percent by 2025.
“It’s an opportunity to look at those early age groups to really change the way they identify themselves — that those students, from an early point in life, can start to identify themselves as a college-bound student,” Weimer said.
“The belief is that then will change their trajectory as they go all the way through their college career path.”
Weimer and other staff members of the Cole Center and Wabash County YMCAs were slated to attend all registration and back-to-school events in Noble and LaGrange counties, and provide information about the Promise program to families and help them sign up for 529 plans.
Enrollment in the 529 plans, which allow individuals to save and invest for costs associated with their child’s postsecondary education, has been streamlined for Promise program participants. In addition, the rule for maintaining a minimum balance has been waived to allow greater participation in the program, regardless of income.
Parkview Health, the nonprofit health system that operates Parkview Noble and Parkview LaGrange hospitals, has agreed to provide $25 in seed money to every Promise participant, continuing its involvement in the program since it was rolled out in Wabash County.
“They have said this is a really important community development piece for them in the northeast region,” Weimer said of Parkview Health.
The Noble and LaGrange REMCs have stepped up to provide match funding to participants, and other businesses and organization have expressed an interest in helping students save for college or vocational training.
Weimer said: “We just want the community to rally around those kids and say: You have the opportunity. The circumstances of your life shouldn’t determine what your future is. It should be the amount of work you’re willing to do, and the hopes and dreams that you have should really be the driver and the dictator.
“And that’s the part that’s exciting for me is that the community can come together as a whole and say, ‘We’re behind these kids, and whatever they dream and hope for, we can help them achieve.’
Through the Promise program, LaGrange County students will visit Trine University in Angola, while Noble County students will visit Huntington University. The program also complements what kindergartners through third-graders are already being taught, said Lisa Walter, business manager at the Cole Center Family YMCA.
“It really fits with what a lot of the schools are already doing, and kind of partners with some of the curriculum they already have in place,” she said.
The YMCA has already began collecting data from students and parents, and will ask teachers whether they’ve noticed a change in their students’ attitudes and school work since starting the program. The University of Kansas will conduct a longitudinal study of the program, and all of that data is expected to give the YMCA an idea as to whether the Promise program is working.
According to data supplied by the YMCA, Noble County has a total of 812 college savings plan accounts for students ages 18 and younger, for a penetration rate of 6.4 percent. LaGrange County has 470 accounts, for a penetration rate of 3.7 percent. Among all counties, Noble ranks 43rd and LaGrange 63rd for the percentage of those 18 and younger with a college savings plan.
Walter said during back-to-school events last Tuesday, about 190 Noble County students signed up for 529 accounts. That included her children.
“I have two kids. I should have started one long ago,” Walter said.
The YMCA’s three focus areas are youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Weimer said the Noble and LaGrange Promise program is an extension of the organization’s mission.
“The Y’s goal is to strengthen the foundation of the community. That’s our overriding promise that we’ve made to the community,” she said.
“What better way to do that than to make a promise to the youth of our community that we’ll support them in their hopes and dreams?”