VALPARAISO — Sometimes getting started is the most difficult step.
For parents of the 1,800-some Porter County kindergarten students concerned about saving for their child's postsecondary education, Promise Porter County has taken that first step for them.
A program launched Tuesday will open a CollegeChoice 529 Direct Savings Plan account for every Porter County youngster enrolled in first grade in the seven public school corporations for the 2017-2018 school year. In addition to opening an account, a local business has promised to provide each youngster with the first $25 contribution, and other groups are promising to match funds contributed to the accounts this fall, said Julie Giorgi, Promise Porter County program coordinator.
Porter County is among 18 counties in the state to join the Promise Indiana campaign to help families save for their children's postsecondary education needs. The state program is funded through the Lilly Endowment.
"We are trying to create hope," Giorgi said. Studies indicate that youngsters who have a college savings account are three to four times likely to continue their education. They also show increased attendance and test scores, she said.
"If you look at a community and look who benefits when you raise the educational attainment rate of our children, everyone benefits," said Bill Higbie, CEO of the Porter County Community Foundation.
Higbie and Bob Wanek, CEO of the Valparaiso Family YMCA, led the local effort to bring the program to Porter County.
Higbie said raising educational attainment addresses myriad issues in the community from homelessness to substance abuse to domestic violence.
Once enrolled, Giorgi said, parents or others can contribute to the child's savings account at any time. The funds can be used for any approved postsecondary facility, including two-year or four-year colleges and trade and technical schools. The money can cover any costs ranging from tuition to housing and books. If a child has an account, but opts not to attend a postsecondary facility, the funds — minus those contributed by outside donors — can be refunded to the family or transferred to another sibling.
Urschel Laboratories has pledged an initial $25 contribution to every 529 account opened, Giorgi said. Other partners, including 1st Source Bank, Stewart and Kathryn McMillan, Thorgren Tool and Molding, Porter Health Care System and the Porter County Community Foundation will provide an undetermined pot of additional funds which will be used as a match during a "Champions campaign" to take place this fall.
Portage Township Schools Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said the program offers nothing but opportunities for youngsters in the county. She said Portage schools plans on actively promoting enrollment in the program
"This plants the seed. It gives them the opportunity to think about the future. It is creating opportunities beyond what existed," Alaniz said. It also shows youngsters the commitment in their future from their community and reinforces the district's message of continuing education.
"It is a wonderful program to help support our students and family," said Jim McCall, assistant superintendent of Valparaiso Community Schools and a member of the program's steering committee.
"The real power is in the details of the program connecting students to other opportunities, to college and career opportunities at an earlier age," McCall said. "It also tells students 'we are investing in you in a very real way.'"
In addition to creating the college savings account, Giorgi said a second component of the Promise Porter County program will be to encourage youngsters to start thinking about their futures. They will provide college and career curriculum to all first-grade teachers next fall, and all first-grade students will take a field trip to Valparaiso University to interact with students and participate in age-appropriate programs.
The program will continue in future years, said Giorgi, but the cohort group it serves each year may change.