News: Financial Aid

SOAR Virginia Grants College Savings to Low-Income High Schoolers Across the State

Tuesday, May 1, 2018  
Posted by: Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations
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Virginia529 is the biggest 529 plan in the country. With account holders in every state, it manages more than $62 billion in assets. But Virginia529 does more than oversee the money families save for college tuition. Its College Savings Account (CSA) program, SOAR Virginia, is connecting low-income students with the money they need to attend college and preparing them to succeed in higher education.

SOAR Virginia aims to create a college-going culture among high school students who didn’t think a postsecondary degree was in their future.

“There are lots of kids out there with potential who weren’t even considering college because of the cost,” said Beth Miller, education strategist at Virginia529. “And what we believe this does for them is it opens a door that might not have been opened by their family, their friends, the community, or whoever. It says, ‘this is possible for you and we’re going to figure out a way to help you pay for it’.”

Students can enroll in SOAR Virginia at the end of their 9th-grade year if they have at least a 2.5 GPA and are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. As long as students meet the pledge requirements – such as attending school without regular absences, completing the FAFSA, and participating in community service activities – they'll receive deposits of $500 every year until they graduate, with an extra $500 deposit during senior year. SOAR Virginia boasts a consistent program retention rate of 96% year after year.

Those enrolled in SOAR Virginia will graduate high school with $2,000 for college, plus the interest their savings accumulate overtime. Because the savings accounts are owned by Virginia529, families can't make their own contributions, but are encouraged to open separate accounts in their name if they're interested.

“We wanted to have an amount that would be meaningful to the students, that would be significant enough to get their attention, and they could watch it grow during the time that they were holding the investment,” Miller said.

Virginia529's fee revenue is large enough to cover the costs of the SOAR Virginia program, and it doesn’t have any outside funders. It does, however, partner with Virginia-based college access programs like ACCESS College Foundation (ACCESS) and GRASP.

ACCESS provides comprehensive college access and success services to public school students in the South Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which encompasses Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Suffolk as well as Northampton County on the Eastern Shore. When Virginia529 and ACCESS started working together during the 2013-14 school year, the SOAR Virginia program was implemented in six high schools served by ACCESS. As of the 2017-18 school year, SOAR Virginia has been implemented in 16 high schools served by ACCESS, with one more to go. The last remaining high school will have the SOAR Virginia program during the 2018-19 school year.

“SOAR Virginia is a great benefit for students in our high schools,” said Cheryl Jones, program director for ACCESS. “Although there is a level of additional paperwork to validate for students to participate in the program, the activities themselves are a part of our regular college access activities. The SOAR Virginia pledge requirements serve as additional support when working with students. It’s a win-win.” She encourages other college access programs to investigate opportunities to add a savings component to their services.

This year, ACCESS will have 159 students in its cohort of high school seniors who may benefit from receiving the complete $2,000 in their Invest529.

“That $2,000 can definitely make a difference in a student’s financial aid package and in whether a student actually attends college,” ACCESS Program Coordinator Ashley Woodous said.

ACCESS has appreciated SOAR Virginia so much that it has added its own savings component to its middle school services. Seventh- and 8th-graders in nine middle schools served by ACCESS can receive college savings contributions of $50 and $75 for engaging in early college awareness and preparation activities.

How much has SOAR Virginia grown since its beginning in 2010? When the program started, it was a pilot serving only about 100 students, but now its reach has increased to more than 2,000. There are cohorts of 15 students participating in SOAR Virginia at 90 high schools across about 45 school districts.

Miller is proud of how much the program has expanded geographically, but said it’s not done growing.

"I've got an eight-by-eight map of Virginia on my wall and little sticky notes where our programs are," she said. "We're filling it in, but we've still got a ways to go."

Not only do the SOAR Virginia staff plan to expand their services to students in other parts of the state, the program might eventually reach middle-schoolers as well.

“There’s a lot of data and research showing that the earlier the conversation, the more significant the impact," Miller said.

For college access and success organizations that are thinking of incorporating a CSA program into their strategy, it’s important to plan carefully and start small, Miller advises.

"Have a long-term strategy, be clear on your objectives, and consider your resources and your constraints," she said. "We have been slow and steady. We didn’t build it and hope they come. We built it with limited resources, we found that it was successful and meaningful and then we expanded our reach overtime.”