Building savings and college-going mindsets for young children

Helping Families Save for College

In 2011, the City of San Francisco made a promise to its families. The Kindergarten to College (K2C) program would help families of all income levels build savings so their children could one day attend and graduate from college. A college savings account is automatically opened for each student entering kindergarten, helping people overcome the first hurdle to saving—getting started. To date, the program has opened over 26,000 savings accounts, and families have deposited more than $2 million of their own money.

Encouraged by the program’s early success, the City’s Office of Financial Empowerment set its sights even higher, aiming to increase the number of people who make deposits to extend K2C’s impact even farther.

In the spring of 2016, we partnered with the City of San Francisco to identify barriers families face as they save for college and then redesign the K2C program’s communications to maximize account usage.

We found a number of bottlenecks preventing families from actively participating in the savings program. First, there are a number of hassles inherent in the deposit process. When families get the account in late October, they must wade through five pages of text to figure out how to make a deposit. And if they lose their account number, they have to call city 311 or go to an event to retrieve it – another big hassle. Second, when children start kindergarten, their families are swamped with time-sensitive priorities, leaving very little urgency around saving for college. They know it’s important, but with 13 years to save it’s hard to feel the need to start right now. The lack of urgency combined with hassles is enough to prevent families who care about their children’s education from saving for college.

Working closely with the K2C team, we redesigned the stream of communications reaching families over the course of the year. We put together a new welcome packet that makes the deposit process clear and simple, and we designed a set of reminders throughout the year to help keep them on track. We also recommended that the K2C team explore time-limited incentives in the future to encourage families to start saving as soon as possible.

Families with incoming kindergarteners will receive these new communications this year. With fewer barriers to start saving for college right away, we hope to see the number of active accounts grow.

Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.