Semillitas nonprofit aims to open college savings accounts for every newborn baby in Santa Cruz County


When Laura Marcus, CEO of Dientes, pitched the idea of ​​investing $ 50 in the college savings accounts of every child who visits the dentist, she knew it would be a tough sell for board members.

“It’s very outside of our wheelhouse,” says Marcus. “We have very little to do with education, so why would we invest that kind of money? ”

But the more she learned about Semillitas, the program that aims to open a college savings account for every newborn baby in Santa Cruz County, the more Marcus realized that this partnership could be mutually beneficial.

“I think this is clearly linked to our goals of making prevention more common than treatment,” says Marcus.

As part of their recently announced alliance, Dientes, a non-profit organization that helps make dental services accessible to low-income patients, will deposit money into the Semillitas Children’s Savings Account on a quarterly basis for oral stages, such as a child’s first tooth or birthday dental visits. . It will also pay money for annual visits (for children 2-5 years old) and sealant visits (for children 6 years old). In total, Dientes will deposit up to $ 200 into a child’s Semillitas account.

“Semillitas gives parents in Santa Cruz County the opportunity to start investing in the health, education and future of their children from the day they are born, and we are delighted to be a partner in this innovative program and to offer incentives for preventative dental care along the way, ”says Marcus.

Semillitas (or “little seeds” in English) aims to provide every Santa Cruz County child born after December 2020 with $ 500 in a college savings account by the time they enter kindergarten. Money collected in these savings accounts can be used for costs related to four-year colleges, but students can also use funds raised for business schools and junior colleges.

Across the country, cities and states offer similar education savings programs to their residents. But Santa Cruz County is implementing a rarer model that will automatically open a savings account for every child at birth, regardless of the family’s economic status. This is just the second college savings program in California that begins at birth – the other being in Oakland – and the only one that will provide an account for all new born.

The county program is modeled after SEED for Oklahoma Kids (SEED OK) in Oklahoma, where college savings accounts are opened for each newborn. The results of SEED OK are studied and updated every year, but already there are reports of a change in behavioral attitudes.

The fact that children have an education savings account is more important than the amount in it. Studies show that kids who have between $ 1 and $ 500 in a college savings account are three to four times more likely to pursue higher education. And just having these accounts improves children’s socio-emotional development and mental health.

These positive impacts extend to the family: In-depth interviews and survey data indicate that just having these stories encourages mothers to have higher educational expectations, more positive parenting practices, and fewer depressive symptoms .

It is children and families from disadvantaged backgrounds who are documented to have the greatest positive impacts from these types of accounts. So, in a county where nearly 50% of children are born into families that have Medi-Cal or are considered low-income, this has the potential to dramatically change the trajectory of local families, says Maria Cadenas, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Ventures, which first prompted the county to consider implementing this type of program in 2019.

“This type of program ensures that our communities have a sense of belonging regardless of their household income, that our children have a sense of the future, regardless of where their parents are,” explains Cadenas. .

In low-income households, the money will go to the most urgent and basic needs first, Cadenas explains. But as the job market becomes more competitive, it is critical that low-income children have access to higher education opportunities if the county is to close the racial wealth gap that persists across generations, says. she.

Post-secondary education is becoming increasingly essential, especially for higher paying jobs. If current trends continue, nearly half of all jobs in California will require a bachelor’s degree by 2030.

Meanwhile, industries generally accessible to people with little education are shrinking. Even before the pandemic, Santa Cruz County’s low-income industries, such as agriculture and farming industries, were either stagnant or in decline. At the same time, middle-income industries that typically require higher education, such as healthcare and education and the tech sector, were booming.

For a county with a large population of farm workers, Cadenas hopes that a Semillitas account will open up more opportunities for children who see a different future for themselves. It’s a small step towards a new slice of wealth.

Cadenas, a first generation student herself, knows firsthand the impact of even discussing college as a viable opportunity.

“For me, personally, the first time I thought about college was when someone told me about it in college. It wasn’t even in my realm of possibilities, ”says Cadenas. “And what we’re doing right now is making sure that this is an area of ​​possibility for every child, and that every parent knows that it is an area of ​​opportunity for their child.”

Cadenas has already seen the impact of savings accounts, even theoretically.

During initial discussions on the format of the program, Cadenas met with local families from various backgrounds and socio-economic status. Cadenas shared a meeting that left a lasting impression on him, about a young mother who brought her baby to the meeting.

“A mother had her daughter in her arms, and she looked at her daughter and she said, ‘You don’t have to be like me, you’re going to college,'” said Cadenas, her voice broken. emotion.

These are the kinds of stories that Semillitas board members kept repeating, stories of families full of hope for their children’s future. And that’s a hope Semillitas is founded on: just having a college savings account signals kids that someone believes in their potential, and it’s going to sow a little seed of hope for their future.

“We say from birth that you are not alone in this case, and we will accompany you in this area and we are committed to you and your success,” Cadenas said. “It opens up the possibility of choosing. ”

Every child born after December 2020 is qualified to collect money through their Semillitas college savings account. Learn more about


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