College Board Proposes Investing Pell Grants When Recipients Are 11 Years Old

The latest round of SAT scores were released Thursday, and as high school seniors get a first glimpse of their options for higher education, the College Board has a novel proposal: What if instead giving college grants to high school graduates, that money was instead put in a savings account for the same students when they were in sixth grade and allowed to grow over time? That’s what a new study group, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has proposed. Under the new plan, college grants would be more than just handouts: They’d be handouts that grew over time and emphasized the importance of savings and compound interest.

There’s a boldness to the notion of proposing any changes whatsoever to the Pell Grant system, which is a federal subsidy and, as with every subsidies, is vigorously defended by its recipients (in this case, colleges). And introducing savings accounts to Pell Grants would presumably force youngsters — the new proposal would give students the money as early as 11 years of age — to take a longer view towards money and finances than is encouraged by the current system.

But the new plan has a flaw: The money would remain solely in federal hands. The recipients of the new Pell Grants would have no role in managing the money, and they wouldn’t be able to add or subtract from the accounts. This hands-off approach would remove personal involvement and decision-making from the equation, key elements of successful financial investing, and the families that received the money would essentially be bystanders.

It’s a step in the right direction, but if you’re going to propose such a significant reform, why not go all the way? At the very least, why not allow the families that are capable to add money to the accounts? This would highlight the value of investment in a way that simply dumping money into a savings account doesn’t, and Pell Grant recipients would be better for it.