Learnings from Boston Saves

CSA programs can provide many benefits to students, families, and communities. Commonwealth believes that they should be designed to meet the needs of the users they seek to benefit. In partnership with the City of Boston, Commonwealth conducted research with 100 Boston Public School families between 2015 and 2016 to understand their preferences for the City’s new children’s savings account (CSA) program, Boston Saves. This research informed the design of the program, which launched at five pilot schools in 2016 and will expand citywide after a three-year pilot period.  

A central finding of Commonwealth’s research was that Boston families wanted flexibility and choice, rather than being given a “one-size-fits-all” solution chosen and managed by institutions in which they felt little trust. Growing out of this research, a key component of Boston Saves is its “open back-end” technology portal: an online tool that allows families to connect a savings vehicle of their choice to the Boston Saves platform in order to track balances and incentives, and engage with related content. The open back-end portal design has the potential to drive greater impact for CSA programs by promoting flexibility and choice for families while supporting growth and scale for programs by allowing them to focus  on program strategy rather than account administration and bookkeeping.

During the first year pilot of Boston Saves, Commonwealth evaluated the effectiveness of the technology portal and the program’s engagement strategies. Findings from the evaluation provide valuable insights into how to leverage the open back-end concept effectively. Lessons drawn from these findings include:

  • Usability matters: participants wanted a portal that met their expectations for ease of use and navigation as well as privacy and security. Programs can meet these expectations by, for example, minimizing the number of “clicks” needed to navigate to key information and avoiding showing extraneous personal information from linked accounts. Facilitating or incentivizing initial interactions with the portal can help familiarize users and make the tool less intimidating. Additional research could help to identify what types of relevant and engaging content is likely to increase ongoing engagement within the portal.
  • Families value flexibility: families valued features that lowered barriers and allowed them to participate in Boston Saves in the way that best fit their needs. These features included low minimum deposits to get started, the ability to connect an account at any time, and the ability to use a savings account of their own choosing.
  • Training is important and can complement other engagement strategies: getting families initially set up and familiar with the tech portal provides an important early engagement opportunity. In many cases, families had not previously used online banking, so programs should be prepared to support families through setting up and using online banking credentials. Families in the evaluation appreciated this type of hands-on support to help them sign up for Boston Saves, particularly when it came from from peers and teachers. This support also provides an opportunity for programs to help participants build their overall financial capability in a context tied to their aspirations for their children’s future.

Boston Saves is an early test of the open back-end CSA model. Learnings from Boston Saves can help inform other programs that want to explore an open back-end to better meet the needs of families and address barriers to scale. Commonwealth looks forward to engaging in additional  research that explores innovative approaches to better serve families and communities through CSA initiatives.

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