It’s one of life’s most magical moments: An infant child comes into the world – squinting, kicking and screaming at the top of those tiny, just-inflated lungs. Time stands blissfully still. And for this life yet to be lived, the possibilities feel endless.
A future global statesman? Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell was born to a janitor and a textile worker in Waterville.
A famous author? Edna St. Vincent Millay was born to poverty and raised by her single mother in Rockland and Camden.
A legendary Hollywood film director? John Ford, one of 11 children born to Irish immigrants, grew up during the hardscrabble early 1900s on Portland’s Munjoy Hill.
“Birth is the time when all the hope, all the aspirations, are all there. It’s the time when nothing else has gotten in the way. It’s the moment when every parent can say, ‘I want my child to be as great as (he or she) possibly can,’ ” said Greg Powell, president of the Harold Alfond Foundation, during last week’s roll-out of a hugely significant investment in Maine’s future.
Effective immediately and retroactive to Jan. 1, 2013, any child born a Maine resident will automatically be the beneficiary of a Harold Alfond College Challenge grant – a $500 vote of confidence, if you will, that every kid in this state is worthy of a higher education.
Originally launched in 2008, the grant program was until now available to all children born as Maine residents with one caveat: In order to access the $500 gift, parents had to enroll their son or daughter in a NextGen College Investing Plan with the Finance Authority of Maine by no later than the child’s first birthday.
Over five years, that strategy netted 23,000 children $11.5 million in Alfond grants. Combined with investment returns and contributions by parents, those accounts have since grown to $32 million.
For all its success to date, however, the program still only managed to attract 40 percent of the eligible Maine children. Harold Alfond, the legendary Maine businessman and philanthropist who was hard at work setting up the grant program when he died at age 93 in 2007, expected better.
“Harold Alfond was not a 40-percent guy,” said Powell. “So last summer, we started thinking, ‘How do we get to 100 percent?’ ”
The simple answer: Just do it. Rather than count on the parents to set up an account in what well may be the most hectic 12 months of their lives, enroll all Maine children automatically via their birth records.
That way, if and when the parents get around to setting up the so-called “529 educational savings plan” with FAME, the Alfond money will be waiting. And even if the parents don’t create the account, the grant will remain available for qualified educational expenditures – essentially the tuition and related costs for any post-secondary school eligible for federal student aid – until the child turns 28.
The amount, to be sure, is modest. The $500 will likely grow to around $1,500 by the time a child turns 18 – hardly enough to cover the cost of private colleges that currently run as high as $60,000 per year.
But as Colleen Quint, president of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation, noted last week, higher education doesn’t have to mean a four-year private college draped in ivy.
“It’s not limited to a bachelor’s degree,” said Quint. “It’s welders programs, it’s associate degrees …”
It’s also online education – a lower-cost option that, as Powell notes, will be far more developed 18 years down the road than it is now.
“That just makes our modest contribution more powerful, I think, in the future,” Powell said.
Beyond the ever-changing price points and returns on investment, though, there’s a bigger message here for families who long have dismissed higher education as a pipe dream.
“People who have a piece of the rock care about their lives, and think about their lives, differently,” said Powell. “If somebody cares enough about you to give you a $500 account, all of a sudden you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to do something with this life!’ And that’s a very, very powerful thing.”
So powerful that as the $500 grows year after year, the Alfond Scholarship Foundation will now use its quarterly statements to encourage parents to set up that NextGen account and start contributing however much they can to their child’s future.
The foundation also is enlisting major employers all over Maine – it already has 10 on board – to provide automatic payroll deductions and, in some cases, matching grants when an employee opens a college investment account through work. In Powell’s view, any employer who helps its workers open accounts for their kids is “doing God’s work.”
At the same time, it’s smart business: The more Maine kids extend their education beyond high school, the better the quality of the state’s workforce for generations to come.
The new policy means an estimated $6 million will go out to 12,000 Maine babies annually. To those who might wonder if that’s truly sustainable, relax – the Alfond foundations have this covered: Powell said it takes just over $100 million a year to perpetually fund a program this size “and we’re at $727 million right now.”
Not bad for a guy who, way back in 1939, sold his car to buy a vacant Norridgewock shoe factory for $1,000 and went on to become one of the richest Americans of his time. A guy whose name graces many an academic and athletic building on college campuses all over Maine. A guy who often said, “Don’t tell me, show me.”
Alfond would have turned 100 on Thursday, the very day his foundation announced this never-ending, statewide birthday present like none other in the nation.
What might he say now that his name is a catalyst for all future Mainers, as they set their sights on life, to aim high?
“I think he’d be overwhelmed,” Susan Alfond, his daughter, told me Friday. “And he would be so happy that people appreciate it. Education was very important to him. He loved children. And he really loved the state of Maine.”
A place where, starting on Day 1, anything just became more possible.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: