SF Gave Kindergartners $50 to Start Saving for College. Now Seniors, They're Cashing In

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An Asian youth looks away from the camera with a school wall behind her.
Class of 2023 student Saw Yunn Nwe poses for a portrait during a ceremony celebrating the first class of graduates from San Francisco high schools using the Kindergarten to College (K2C) savings account as they head off to college, at the San Francisco Unified School District headquarters in San Francisco on May 16, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Saw Yunn Nwe, 18, attends the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman this fall, she will be the first person in her family to go to college in the United States.

She’s also part of San Francisco’s graduating senior class of 2023 — the first group of students to complete the city’s Kindergarten to College program (K2C), which, back in 2011, was the first universal college savings program in the country. It started with a limited number of kindergartners before expanding to include every student from that generation. Twelve years later, at the time of their high school graduation, the class of 2023 have been able to save $755,281 overall, which will go to cover college tuition and other education expenses.

Back when Nwe was in eighth grade, her homeroom teacher passed out envelopes to all the kids in her class. Nwe and her family had just settled in San Francisco after migrating from Myanmar, and she was just getting adjusted to her new classes at James Denman Middle School.

People sit and watch a video in a conference hall.
Attendees watch a video during the ceremony. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The envelopes carried a message from the school district, reminding them about their accounts and letting them know the city had already deposited $50 in each. As she saw her classmates read their letters, Nwe assumed she didn’t qualify for the program — she had arrived in San Francisco only a few months prior and hadn’t gone to kindergarten in here.

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But a few weeks later, her teacher gave her an envelope from K2C. “It was kind of shocking … I don’t think this would have been possible back in my country,” she said. “I was really encouraged to save for college.”

Since 2011, K2C has continued to grow and now opens accounts for every student currently enrolled in an SFUSD school, regardless of when they entered the district. If you add up every account, the total savings amounts to roughly $15 million.

Nwe says that one of her dreams, ever since she emigrated to the U.S., has been to attend an American university. However, when she learned how expensive it is in this country, she became nervous because her parents were already working multiple jobs to support her and her siblings.

An Asian youth and a white youth smile with dyed orange hair sit behind a podium and smile at an unseen audience.
Nwe (left) speaks alongside fellow student Yadira Vazquez. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Whenever my parents tried to set money aside for me to go to college, I would feel bad because they couldn’t use it for themselves — like I was putting a burden on them,” she explained, and said that there were times it felt like going to college was not going to be financially possible. “But then my parents reassured me that it was going to be worth it.”

Nwe and her parents decided they were going to make the most of the K2C account. Her parents would deposit small amounts whenever they had the chance, and Nwe found out that the program also offered cash incentives: Whenever students take time to explore their account or learn more about savings and personal finances, K2C rewards them by adding small amounts into their accounts.

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“Most of my K2C comes from scholarships I earned and from summer jobs,” Nwe explained. “Instead of giving me a check, they put it in [my account].” By the end of her senior year, Nwe was able to save a little over $1,400, which she says isn’t enough to cover tuition at UPenn, but it can cover other necessary expenses, like fees and books for class.

Having young people learn how savings accounts work and talking about personal finances with their families are some of the goals of the K2C program, says San Francisco City Treasurer José Cisneros, who helped design the program with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2011. “It’s not about saving thousands of dollars necessarily,” Cisneros said. “If we give [students] 12 or 13 years to save money, they’re going to have something real there when they graduate high school.”

A middle-aged Latino man with a suit and tie speaks from behind a dais with a university emblem behind him.
San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros speaks about the first class of graduates from San Francisco high schools using the K2C savings. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

If you’re currently an SFUSD student — or a parent or guardian of one — and are heading into summer thinking about college, here’s a quick breakdown of how Kindergarten to College works and how to make the most of your account.

How can I access my Kindergarten to College account?

K2C opens an account for a student automatically, as soon as they enroll in an SFUSD school and regardless of what grade they enroll in or whether they transfer in partway through the year.

Parents or guardians do not need to do anything; however, they do need to visit the K2C portal and register their student’s information so they can see their account balance and start depositing. To register an account, you will need your student’s K2C account number. SFUSD mails families a letter with their student’s account number several times during elementary and middle school.

What if I can’t find my K2C account number?

No worries — K2C has a tool that can help track down your account number. All you need is your student’s full name, birth date and ZIP code. Once you have the number handy, go back to the K2C portal to register, create a password and check out your account. You should already have $50 dollars in there — that starting amount comes from the city and is allocated from the city’s general fund.

Once you have your account set up, there are several ways you can make a deposit, including through direct deposit, making a deposit in person or mailing a check.

How much is my family expected to save?

Each family can engage with their K2C account as much or as little as they see fit. There is no obligation from the city to use the account. Each account already comes with $50, and if you log in to your account at least once a year, the city will add another $20. There are many different types of cash incentives available: Some you can receive by learning more about your account; others are available through special student contests where students can submit original art pieces they created at school; and some are automatically available to students at select elementary schools. You can review a more detailed list of incentives on the K2C website.

A crowd of people sit inside a large conference room and look away from the camera. Behind them, a large monitor reads out, "Congratulations graduates!"
Attendees watch a video during the ceremony. Every kindergartner who attends public school in San Francisco receives a college savings account automatically with a $50 incentive. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I’m a high school senior right now. How can I withdraw what I have in my account?

Closing out your account is pretty straightforward. If you have an automatic direct deposit set up, first make sure you stop these transfers. Then, complete a K2C Account Withdrawal Request Form, where you will be asked to confirm your personal information, whether you are graduating high school and what you will be using the money for. You have several ways to receive it, including through a Zelle account transfer, a check or a transfer to a ScholarShare 529 account.

If you have not yet graduated high school, but are transferring out of an SFUSD school (for example, you are transferring to a private school in the city or to another school district), you can also request to withdraw your funds. And if you never deposited your own money into your account, you can still request to withdraw the money the city deposited.

Are students enrolled in charter schools included in the K2C program? What about students in private or parochial schools?

Most charter schools in San Francisco are included in K2C. Students at any of these schools qualify for the program:

  • Creative Arts Charter School
  • Thomas Edison Charter Academy
  • Gateway Middle School
  • KIPP Bayview Academy (middle school)
  • KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy
  • KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory
  • Gateway High School
  • Leadership High School
  • City Arts and Tech High School

Something important to keep in mind: According to city officials, students at KIPP Bayview Elementary (separate from KIPP Bayview Academy, the middle school) and the New School of San Francisco, a K–8 school, are not included in the program.

K2C does not open accounts for students enrolled in private or parochial schools. Additionally, those currently enrolled in learning institutions affiliated with the San Francisco County Office of Education also are not eligible.

What about students who are not enrolled in a San Francisco public school? Are there programs similar to K2C in other parts of California?

Since the creation of K2C, other cities in California have worked with school districts and nonprofit organizations to create their own versions of a universal college savings program. In Oakland, the nonprofit Oakland Promise manages two similar programs, Oakland Promise Kindergarten to College, which helps open savings accounts for families in Oakland public schools and offers scholarships for students who graduate high school, and the Brilliant Baby program, which opens college savings accounts with $500 already added, for families who recently had a baby and who qualify for Medi-Cal or food stamps.

In Los Angeles, Opportunity L.A. opens savings accounts for eligible LAUSD students, with a $50 seed deposit. And in 2022, California launched a statewide college savings initiative, CalKIDS. Two groups of young Californians are eligible for CalKIDS: children born on or after the creation of the program on July 1, 2022; and current K–12 students enrolled in any California public school who are either unhoused, enrolled in a foster youth program or are considered by the state to come from lower-income households.

Families who open an account for their newborn can receive a seed deposit from the state of up to $100, and eligible K–12 students qualify for a $500 deposit. You can check whether your newborn or student qualifies on the CalKIDS website.

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