Lansing Makes It Easier to Save for a Lifetime of Success
Michigan’s capital city is determined to put college within reach of low-income families
By Alison Gardy
**Even before COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated so many symptoms of the United States’ crisis of economic inequality, local governments were working on better ways forward. Through the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative, launched in June 2019, nine cities chose to develop critical projects to increase the financial security and economic mobility of their most vulnerable residents — often in low-income communities of color.
The story below is a snapshot: a record of a persistent obstacle to economic mobility, of a city creatively engaged with the problem, of an emerging solution. Written before the pandemic began, it shows the commitment and leadership of city leaders, staff, and local community partners who recognized the need for change. Although COVID-19 is reshaping economic mobility challenges and solutions around the country, the stories of these pre-crisis actions and insights remain instructive and valuable.
As the hard tasks of response and recovery continue, WWC will be publishing stories about how cities have evolved their economic mobility projects to meet the moment.**
LANSING, MI — Countless parents across the country dream of seeing their children go to college. But for more and more of our friends and neighbors, that dream is bumping into an unfortunate reality.
College has become unaffordable to many, as evidenced by the $1.5 trillion in student debt nationwide. Yet earning a college degree has become a critical predictor of economic success and stability: Over a lifetime, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn 31 percent more than those with only an associate’s degree and 84 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. This amounts to about $1 million more on average in lifetime earnings for those who finish college, compared to those who only finish high school.
But for many in Lansing, which has a 40 percent poverty rate, the high costs of higher education have put a college diploma out of reach. About 26 percent of city residents 25 years or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared to the national average of 36 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“Low-income parents may be afraid to talk about post-secondary education with their children, not knowing if they will be financially able to keep such a promise in the future,” says Amber Paxton, director of the City of Lansing’s Office of Financial Empowerment.
“Being just $500 short can make a student drop out of college and never go back,” adds Michelle Strasz, executive director of Capital Area College Access Network (CapCAN), which is based in Lansing. “If you’re choosing between food, car, and college, you choose food and car.” Under these circumstances, saving enough for college can seem impossible.
Energized by the leadership of Mayor Andy Schor and his team, the city is determined to make the dream of college and other post-secondary educational pursuits a reality for the city’s lowest-income families. In doing so, Lansing is poised to transform the lives of its residents and its economy.
More Than a Scholarship
Like many great turnaround stories, Lansing’s began with a crisis. In the wake of the 2009 recession, many of the city’s families took advantage of an existing Schools of Choice option, enrolling their children in public schools in more affluent suburbs. In response, the city began Lansing Promise, a program to offer post-secondary scholarships to students enrolled in the Lansing School District. It was part of a federal program designed to raise educational attainment and accelerate economic development through community-based universal scholarship programs.
Funded by a property tax increase in 2013, Lansing Promise offers local high school graduates two years of post-secondary education tuition at several local institutions of higher education. The average student receives about $5,000 in scholarship assistance, with a maximum of $6,400. When coupled with federal Pell and state grants, the funds are sufficient to cover the in-state cost of a two-year degree.
But the city recognized that it was not enough to fund part of the leap from high school to post-secondary pursuits. To afford costs beyond tuition, students and their families would need to begin saving as early as kindergarten. So in partnership with community-based organizations, the city developed a broad range of K-12 financial capability and empowerment programs for its most financially vulnerable families. These programs form a loose network of programs and organizations that, since 2014, have collectively been known as SHAPE (Save, Hope, Access, Promise, and Empower). Each program in the SHAPE network offers a financial planning strategy geared to where a family is in its journey through the Lansing school system.
For example, Lansing SAVE (Student Accounts Valuing Education) is a post-secondary education savings program in partnership with the Lansing School District and Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU). All incoming kindergarten students automatically receive a credit union account. Another example — the H.O.P.E. and Promise Scholarships program — offers universal post-secondary scholarships at Lansing Community College to sixth graders who pledge to complete high school in the Lansing School District.
From Good to Great
City leaders were confident that the SHAPE network’s multi-pronged way of supporting low-income students’ journey into college and other post-secondary pursuits was the right approach. Still, they suspected it could have greater impact. City leaders and SHAPE partners saw and talked about SHAPE as a continuum of services, but they knew externally, to families and the general public, this wasn’t the case. So they applied to join the WWC Economic Mobility initiative, an 18-month program that aims to help nine participating cities identify, pilot, and measure the success of local strategies designed to accelerate economic mobility for their residents.
One of the first things Lansing did after being chosen for the program was take a closer look at what the data showed about the effectiveness of the types of programs in SHAPE’s portfolio. With the support of WWC expert partner the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), the city identified what kinds of individual services have proven effective. For example, research has shown that children’s savings accounts — which is essentially what Lansing SAVE is — help children build a financial plan around paying for college, and that when children receive financial education and savings early in life, their financial capabilities improve.
The problem, however, was that it could be challenging for families to navigate myriad services. There had been no central location with information about all SHAPE services. SHAPE partners held informational events, but for financially-strapped families working second and third shifts, inadequate transportation and a lack of time made it difficult to attend them. Fliers about SHAPE services might go home in a backpack, but parents and guardians did not always receive them.
A lack of full integration among the SHAPE programs also made it confusing and clumsy for families to progress from one program to the next as their children grew older. Especially if they had to re-enroll a child in different programs.
“We are in a community that is program-rich and system-poor,” says Andi Crawford, director of the City of Lansing’s Department of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement. Parents did not always understand the relationships between SHAPE partners, and there had not been a “warm hand-off” established for transitions. A high school senior, for instance, may have known to get help filling out a financial aid form from CapCAN. But he or she may have had no idea that, upon turning 18, one-on-one financial counseling was available through the Financial Empowerment Center.
With data in hand, the city decided to make SHAPE more accessible and impact more students and families by fully integrating its various programs. To that end, one of the first decisions the city made was to rename and rebrand SHAPE as BOLD Lansing, which stands for Believe, Optimize, Learn, Dream — inspiring all Lansing students to dream big. City officials also set a specific goal for the reimagined initiative: for 20 percent of Lansing School District families to participate in multiple BOLD Lansing services within two years.
Currently, all 5,000+ Lansing children in kindergarten through fifth grade have children’s savings accounts to be used for college or other post-secondary pursuits, reflecting the six years that SHAPE (and now BOLD) has existed. If Lansing is successful in serving 20 percent of families in two years with multiple services along the BOLD continuum, thousands more students will have a clearer financial path to pursue post-secondary educational opportunities. If their dream of earning a college diploma becomes reality, they’ll be more likely to climb the economic ladder.
Sustaining the Work
The task ahead is complex: The seven organizations* involved with BOLD Lansing will need to align and integrate their programming, database sharing, and public messaging. And as data-driven and evidence-based decision-making takes root in the city, the effort’s programs — and how they are integrated — will need to be re-evaluated.
As the city works to weave the participating organizations and programs into an integrated one-stop continuum of service delivery to city residents, making it seamless for young families to enroll in BOLD programs and access services along the continuum, the city will need to bolster its own capacity in data management and analysis.
Lansing has had a head start in this effort, however. For the last several years, the city’s departments have worked to incorporate data into decision-making. Mayor Schor has continued to lead a cultural shift in City Hall toward performance-based budgeting, which aligns taxpayer dollars and other resources with city government priorities and expected outcomes. He has invested in ensuring that Lansing can make the most of its partnership-building skills and creative problem-solving prowess by improving its capacity to use data and evidence to evaluate and align its programs and policies.
Lansing is determined to increase economic mobility and financially empower families, one child at a time. The city is fortifying its good intentions with a greater capacity to use data and evidence — critical if the city’s programs are to evolve and thrive. In this spirit, the city is eager to engage with technical experts from all five WWC partner organizations as the city and its partners integrate BOLD programs into a seamless continuum. That involves creating an online portal to help families navigate BOLD services, developing robust data infrastructure, and creating a system to evaluate the unified program’s effectiveness.
Crawford appreciates that WWC’s national recognition of Lansing’s efforts makes it easier to build a local coalition committed to performance-based leadership. “The peer cohort of eight other cities brings new ideas, resources, and perspectives to solving problems similar to ours,” she says. As of early 2020, WWC funding has enabled the beginning of the BOLD rebranding as well as the hiring of a temporary staff person to conduct an outreach campaign to Lansing families.
“When families save enough to send their children to college,” says Velma Kyser, program manager at the City’s Financial Empowerment Center, “the children believe they can make a difference. You change people’s financial life, and you change the economy of Lansing.”
*The seven organizations in BOLD Lansing: City of Lansing, Lansing School District, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, Cristo Rey Community Center, Capital Area College Access Network, Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, and Capital Area United Way.
Alison Gardy is a communications consultant for Results for America.
The What Works Cities Economic Mobility initiative is a program that aims to help nine participating cities identify, pilot, and measure the success of local strategies designed to accelerate economic mobility for their residents. Through the expertise of the What Works Cities’ network of partners and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group, this initiative puts data and evidence at the center of local government decision-making.
Launched in 2015, What Work Cities helps local governments use data and evidence to tackle their most pressing challenges and improve residents’ lives. Learn more about What Works Cities at whatworkscities.org.