Community colleges can offer aspiring students vital job skills and open doors to further postsecondary education, but paying for classes alongside living and other expenses can be challenging for students with limited means. Individual development account (IDA) programs assist low-income current and prospective students by matching their savings toward higher education expenses and by providing financial education on how to save and plan for those expenses.
Matched savings programs, such as the former federal Assets for Independence (AFI) program, can help students pay for community college and offer them a foothold for other asset purchases. These programs aim to help students build valuable savings habits, increase their financial knowledge, and connect them to services that help them navigate their education and career goals. Community colleges and their partners can often tap existing on-campus student services to launch IDA programs.
The issues covered in this brief—fundraising, outreach to potential participants, application processes, and engagement with participants—are likely to remain relevant for many IDA programs, even outside the AFI context. We focus on the practices of six community colleges to highlight strategies grantees believed to be effective.
Primary Research Questions
How might interested colleges set up IDA programs, navigate funder requirements, and position their program within the community college’s organizational structure?
What should community colleges know when recruiting and enrolling IDA participants?
How can community colleges best encourage participant engagement in IDA programs and maximize matched savings withdrawals?
In this brief, we explore how recent examples of AFI IDA projects integrated in community college settings can offer lessons for other education, employment, and training institutions interested in providing similar services.
Key Findings and Highlights
Observations by staff operating these AFI IDA projects reveal common themes about the strategies they use in administering their projects. Other IDA programs may benefit from the following strategies:
Grant management and organizational setup
- Partnering with experienced IDA providers to navigate program requirements;
- Strategically positioning the IDA program within the community college’s organizational structure (e.g., co-locating the program with other student services); and
- Exploring opportunities to fundraise through the community college’s affiliated foundation, investigating state-specific funding sources (e.g., tax incentives), or connecting to an external funder consortium.
Targeting and outreach
- Targeting students who can benefit most from IDAs, especially those with few other sources of financial aid;
- Coordinating recruitment for the IDA program with other on-campus organizations; and
- Marketing IDAs to prospective participants (e.g., by combining broad outreach with student testimonials).
Application and enrollment
- Using the academic calendar to enroll students either individually or through cohorts; and
- Reducing hassle factors for students by simplifying the sign-up process with checklists, electronic forms, and relaxed information requirements; and combining account opening with financial education classes.
Participant engagement and matched savings withdrawals
- Helping students manage the pace of savings and withdrawals through signed “contracts” and support from program staff; and
- Maximizing withdrawal of available match funds by sequencing student payments so that IDA funds are used first, leaving other financial aid for expenses that IDA funds do not cover.
We interviewed staff at the following community colleges: Central New Mexico Community College in New Mexico, Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota, Manchester Community College in New Hampshire, Monroe Community College in New York, Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon, and Skyline College in California. In addition to covering a wide geographic range, they vary in size—enrollment ranged from 6,000 to more than 30,000—and in their AFI IDA project features. Almost all programs focus on saving for education expenses (Central New Mexico also allows savings to be used for home purchases and small-business capitalization). At the time of our interviews, all six programs had been operating for at least three years.
We conducted phone interviews to ask about the strategies and designs used by IDA staff at the six community college campuses listed above. Our qualitative interviews covered AFI IDA project features, campus services, and student experiences, and we asked interviewees to provide their own insights. We focus on the six community colleges’ current practices to highlight strategies grantees find effective.
To maximize usefulness, IDA programs could:
- target students likely to benefit most from an IDA (e.g., those with limited access to other financial aid);
- recruit them in ways that build trust; and
- help them efficiently use their available IDA match funds in combination with other financial support.