Every St. Paul kindergartner may soon start school with money for college.

In his inaugural address Tuesday, Mayor Melvin Carter pledged to work with businesses, philanthropists and nonprofits to provide a college savings account for "every child born in St. Paul."

A $50 investment isn't going to accumulate enough to make much of a difference in affordability, with in-state tuition and fees at the University of Minnesota totaling nearly $15,000 this year. Proponents of similar programs around the country say it's the idea, and not the sum, that will inspire students to work toward attending college.

If Carter is successful, St. Paul will join a growing group of U.S. cities working to boost college attendance by giving students a little college fund.

San Francisco started its $50 college funds for kindergartners in 2011. A program launched in 2015 in St. Louis now counts about 10,000 participating students. In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in her inaugural address — also on Tuesday — that she plans to follow suit.

The Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board has been exploring implementing college savings accounts for a little over a year, said Executive Director Ann Marie DeGroot. In 2017, then-Mayor Betsy Hodges allocated $15,000 in her budget for the initiative, and this year allocated $40,000. The hope is to implement the program in 2019, DeGroot said, though the specifics have not been worked out.

There are few details about Carter's plan at this point, but it will likely be modeled closely after what other cities are already doing, said Liz Xiong, a spokeswoman for the mayor. It's one of Carter's immediate priorities, she said, along with reviewing the St. Paul Police Department's use of force policy and pushing for a citywide $15 minimum wage.

Because existing college savings account programs are relatively new, it's tough to predict whether the children they're serving now will ultimately attend and graduate from college.

"This is a long game," said St. Louis City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who created the city's college savings account program. "These are small investments that we make in children that yield big returns, but we're going to have to be patient for those returns because we won't see them for another 12 to 13 years."

Selling the idea to families

When St. Louis launched its college savings account program — which is funded with municipal parking revenue and private donations — parents were skeptical, Jones said.

"It was free money coming from the government and they thought, 'Well, where are the strings that are attached?' " she said. "It took us a while to sort of build our reputation."

The challenge in launching college savings account programs is simply getting families to participate, said Grant Hewitt, chief of staff for the state treasurer in Nevada, where every public school student in the state has access to a $50 college savings account when they start kindergarten. That program is also funded without tax dollars.

Of more than 170,000 eligible students, Hewitt said, about 20,000 have claimed their account and about 1,400 have opened their own account, which allows their families to contribute money. Accounts must be claimed by the end of a child's fourth-grade year — after that, Hewitt said, the state takes the money back to fund other students' accounts.

"This is not an easy sell," he said.

St. Paul Public Schools reported 3,104 children enrolled in kindergarten in October 2016. The district already provides guidance for students around paying for college, but college savings accounts would be new.

"I think it's going to take many hands and some heavy lifting" to make happen, said Darren Ginther, assistant director for the district's Office of College and Career Readiness. But it's something the district supports, he said.

Making college possible

Though $50 isn't going to make a dent in tuition, the important thing is to get children thinking about saving for and attending college from an early age, said Sara Dziuk, executive director of College Possible Minnesota.

A program like the one Carter has proposed, she said, tells young people that their city "believes they are a child worth investing in."

"I think that statement is worth so much right from the start," Dziuk said.

Researchers at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis can back that up. As part of a research project called the College Savings Initiative, they found that among children who expected to graduate from a four-year college, those with a savings account in their name were about six times more likely to attend college than those without one.

Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, volunteered for the Carter campaign and attended the inauguration. Nathan said he talked to Carter about college affordability and debt during the campaign, but Tuesday was the first time he heard the mayor's college savings account idea.

"I was delighted that one of the priorities that he has established is in the area of youth and in the area of helping expand opportunity for more youngsters to participate in some form of postsecondary education," Nathan said. "I think it's a terrific part of the kind of city that he wants it to be."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509