$500 Seed Money Boosts Parents’ College Goals for Kids

Randomized Study Finds Oakland Promise Child Savings Accounts and Financial Coaching Fuel College Aspirations Among Medi-Cal Eligible Families

By Lorna Fernandes

Families who are eligible for Medi-Cal and receive seed funding for a college fund for their newborns are healthier, less stressed, and more likely to aspire to education and college for their child at 18 months, according to the first study to assess the impact of integrating a 529 college fund program and financial coaching with a medical home.

The Brilliant Baby program, part of Oakland Promise – a nonprofit organization that aims to advance economic and educational mobility through cradle-to-career services – seeds $500 college funds for Medi-Cal-eligible babies, provides families with financial coaching free of charge and offers educational programming for caregivers.

Offering college savings accounts through pediatric primary care clinics is a powerful resource that makes providers part of the solution in improving the child’s developmental, educational and health outcomes.

Dayna Long, MD

In a randomized controlled trial co-led by NORC at the University of Chicago and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, researchers found a positive effect on parents’ hopes and educational aspirations for their child in families with infants who received college savings accounts, as well as improved health and lower stress among the caregivers. In those families who received personalized financial coaching, the program also improved caregivers’ perceptions of financial well-being and led to greater participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Nationwide, in concert with scholarships and grants available to college students, Child Savings Accounts (CSAs) have become a cornerstone for preparing young children and their families with expectations and resources to complete the post-secondary education needed to secure job and career opportunities.

“This research supports implications for wider impact at the state and national levels,” says Sandra Ernst, CEO of Oakland Promise. “With the mission of creating equity, CSAs are getting more attention and investment, such as with the new CalKIDS College Savings program in California, to help college become a reality for all children.”

Early Investments Have Positive Impacts

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the study recruited eligible families receiving medical care at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland for infants who were 2 to 9 months old. All participating families’ household incomes were low enough to be eligible for Medi-Cal, with 82% earning less than $30,000 annually. Most participants were members of historically underrepresented groups: 88% identified as Black, Brown or multi-ethnic, and only 15% had a primary caregiver who had earned an undergraduate degree.

“This 18-month phase of the study assessed the impact of providing early investments in children’s savings accounts for low-income children on their development and educational trajectory, as well as the positive effects of financial coaching for parents,” says Marc Hernandez, PhD, a principal research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago. “This is the first evaluation of a program that integrates a 529 college savings account with a patient’s medical home, while also offering the family financial coaching, embedded within a Promise program.”

The study examined the initial program impact from baseline until children were approximately 18 months of age. Children were randomly assigned upon enrollment to one of three groups:

Control group

Received “standard of care” at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and no Brilliant Baby programming

CSA only group

In addition to standard of care, the Brilliant Baby program established a 529 CSA seeded with $500

CSA plus coaching group

In addition to standard of care and a CSA, caregivers had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a financial coach up to six times over a one-year period, with $100 stipends for the first three sessions to incentivize attendance.


Improved Hope and Health

When the children were 18 months old, the research found measurable benefits for both CSA groups. The group that included coaching showed statistically significant increases in parents’ expectations about how much education their child will complete, improvements in their sense of hope, optimism, stress levels and financial well-being, and a higher likelihood of saving for their child’s education and of participating in other programs that support their family’s health.

“Offering college savings accounts through pediatric primary care clinics is a powerful resource that makes providers part of the solution in improving the child’s developmental, educational and health outcomes,” says Dayna Long, MD, a principal investigator on the study and co-director of the UCSF Center for Child and Community Health.

Joci Kelleher, Director of Oakland Promise’s Brilliant Baby program, adds that when CSAs are accompanied by financial coaching, “parents experience even more tangible benefits – which is especially critical for families with lower incomes.”

Researchers will collect additional data when the children are 36 months old and will continue to follow the children until kindergarten.

Summary of Findings

By the time babies reached 18 months, families receiving Brilliant Baby programming in the CSA-only and CSA-plus-coaching groups showed multiple benefits across multiple domains, including more favorable beliefs about their child’s educational future, hope, health, and financial well-being.

CSA Only

  • Higher parent expectations about the ideal and expected levels of educational attainment for their child

  • Greater parent hope for the future

  • Better self-related parent health 

  • Lower parent-perceived stress

  • No significant benefits observed on financial well-being

CSA + Coaching

  • Higher parent expectations about the ideal and expected levels of educational attainment for their child

  • Greater parent hope for the future

  • Lower parent-perceived stress

  • Greater likelihood of saving for their child’s future education 

  • Greater participation in WIC nutritional programming

  • increased financial well-being

About Oakland Promise
Striving to advance equity, Oakland Promise (OP) is a nonprofit organization in Oakland, CA that empowers the city’s young people and their families with opportunities and resources to fulfill their college and career dreams. One of the nation’s first cradle-to-career scholarship organizations, Oakland Promise offers every child in the program the financial resources, support, mentorship, and incentives they need from birth and throughout their school years to empower them to seek out and thrive in higher education and the career of their choosing. Oakland Promise offers four programs to support children in every milestone of their educational journey: Brilliant Baby, Kindergarten 2 College (K2C), College Access, and College Completion. Visit www.oaklandpromise.org.

About UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals
UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals are among the nation’s leading pediatric specialty hospitals, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. Their expertise covers virtually all pediatric conditions, including cancer, heart disease, neurological disorders, pulmonology, diabetes and endocrinology, as well as the care of critically ill newborns. The two campuses in San Francisco and Oakland are known worldwide for basic and clinical research and are at the forefront of translating research into interventions for treating and preventing pediatric disease. They are part of UCSF Health, whose adult hospital ranks among the top 10 medical centers nationwide and serves as the teaching hospital for the University of California, San Francisco, a national leader in biomedical research and graduate-level health/sciences education. Visit www.ucsfhealth.org.

About NORC at the University of Chicago
NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society. Visit www.norc.org.