College Savings: Big-Sky Style!

In today’s uncertain and competitive economy, a college degree is increasingly considered a must-have to get a decent-paying job. Rural residents are less likely than city dwellers to have a college degree. And this is especially true for residents of chronically poor rural communities, a study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire shows.

Fortunately, rural communities across the country are finding ways to help young people attain higher education levels to improve their economic status over time. A great example of this the Montana Matched Education Savings Account (MESA) program, which uses Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) to help people with lower incomes better afford a college education – a “productive asset” that can produce long-term benefits and future financial security. Read on to learn more about Montana MESA and how you can help young people GROW college savings in your region!

MESA Basics

College savings programs offer a relatively new and innovative approach to helping young people overcome financial barriers to attend college. In Montana, where 65 percent of the population is rural, students who participate in the MESA program receive matching funds for setting aside hard-earned money to pay for post-secondary education in their home state.

By saving up to $500, a student can earn between $1,500 and $4,000 in matching funds depending which school they choose to attend. The match rate varies from 3-to-1 at some public institutions, to 8-to-1 at Carroll College, a more expensive private school in the state.

To be eligible, a student must meet income guidelines, work, and make monthly savings deposits of at least $25 for six months in an account at a MESA-partnering credit union. The account can be used for tuition, books, fees, and school supplies like a computer.

The student also must complete MESA’s training in personal finance and money management, which covers budgeting and credit reports, topics not currently covered in Montana high schools.

Overall, the program helps people rely less on student loans, stay in school, connect to financial institutions, and gain valuable financial skills.

The Key to Successful Savings Programs

The key to success for Montana MESA has been a combination of insightful leadership, collaboration, and a mix of funding streams.

In largely rural Big Sky Country, it was the non-profit Montana Credit Unions for Community Development (MCUCD) that spearheaded the college savings effort. “We saw a real need there – to reduce student debt, increase student retention, and supplement the funding,” says Karen Smith, of the Helena-based MCUCD.

MCUCD may have led the charge for the development of a college savings program, but the asset-building effort is the result of a collaboration of many groups, including Montana credit unions, several nonprofits, and – most innovative of all – five Montana colleges and universities that helped provide local funds required to receive federal dollars for MESA. Each school designs its own program and match rate.

A sixth MESA, launching in fall 2013, will be specifically for Montana high school students from low-income rural areas. It brings aboard a new partner, Montana GEAR UP, a federally-funded effort in high schools to prepare rural teens for college, and several additional Montana post-secondary schools.

Montana MESA receives some funding from Assets for Independence, the federal program that supports IDAs. In addition, Montana’s post-secondary institutions tap into a variety of resources to finance MESA, from scholarship funds earmarked for low-income students to a business development fund or private family endowment.

“It’s a great fundraising tool for the schools,” says Karen Smith. “You basically say to a funder, ‘Hey, we can essentially double the amount that you’re funding to help low-income students.'”

Rural Students Invest to Get Ahead

Building a program like Montana MESA takes time and often starts small. MESA was piloted in 2010 with the University of Montana and Carroll College, enabling 98 students to earn a cumulative match of $200,000.

Now, with three additional schools on board, plus Montana GEAR UP, the MESA program expects over 350 students – about half traditional students, half nontraditional – to participate through 2017. Combined, the students will save at least $178,500 of their income for post-secondary education; earn $783,014 in matching funds; and invest $961,514 in Montana schools.

“It’s making a difference in students’ lives – helping college be a less stressful time, without having to take out excess student loans, and getting them in the habit of saving regularly,” says Smith.

“My goal is to see every college and university in Montana have their own MESA program. We see this as a step for building students’ assets – to get their education, get a job and then maybe pursue their first-time homebuyer IDA.”

Do It Yourself: Matched Savings Account Resources

Here are some resources to look into starting a MESA program in your area:

  • Montana Credit Unions for Community Development provides information on Montana MESA. Visit or contact Karen Smith at 1-406-442-9081 ex: 124.
  • Oregon’s Matched College Savings Program inspired the Montana MESA program and has won praise as “an innovative approach to financing higher education and college access for low-income and underrepresented students” from CFED. To learn more, visit:
  • The state of Nevada suffers from one of the lowest college education rates in the country. To address this issue, the State Treasurer’s Office is piloting the Nevada College Kick Start Program, offering a $50 deposit in a college savings account for select kindergartners in the state’s thirteen most rural counties. Read more about the pilot project here.
  • The Assets for Independence (AFI) Resource Center offers information on assets-based approaches to help low-income families out of poverty and tools such as matched savings accounts. See:

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