Earlier this month, Colleen Quint traveled up to Lewiston to buy a growler of beer for a friend at Bear Bones Beer. She had on a vest bearing the logo of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation.

“The young guy pulling the beer has tats running up and down (his arms) … he’s got the cork thing in the ear,” Quint recalled.

As he poured, the bartender stopped for a moment and squinted at the tiny logo on Quint’s vest.

“Do you know anything about that program?” he asked.

Quint happens to be president and CEO of the foundation. For the last four years, it’s awarded a $500 college scholarship, no questions asked, to every child born in Maine.

“Yeah,” Quint replied to the tattooed beer guy. “I’m involved with that.”

“That is the best thing,” he said. “My daughter is 4 months old and we are so excited about that. And we’re telling all of the family she doesn’t need toys, she doesn’t need clothes. What she needs is her future.”

Pausing at the tap once again, he looked Quint in the eye and said, “It’s a really important thing you’re doing.”

Eureka.

Three years ago in this space, we celebrated the news that the Alfond Scholarship Foundation had taken its Harold Alfond College Challenge universal – meaning parents, rather than formally apply for a free $500 kickstarter grant for their newborn’s college fund, automatically had their child enrolled in the program simply upon registration of the baby’s birth.

The money, which at current rates is expected to grow to between $2,000 and $2,400 by the time today’s newborn reaches 18, can be used to pay for any qualified higher education expense (as defined by the Internal Revenue Service) at any accredited postsecondary school in the United States. The recipient has until the age of 28 to use it, or it goes back to the foundation.

“Think of a family living in rural Maine in a trailer somewhere and the kid gets to be 17 years of age – and they’ve got 2,400 bucks in the bank for something. And they can’t do anything with it except to look for higher education,” said Greg Powell, president of the overarching Harold Alfond Foundation. “Having it there, year after year, for 18 years – the studies are proving that it will change the way parents feel about the future of their child.”

Let’s go to the numbers.

Since its founding as a pilot program in 2008 and the switch to automatic enrollment starting in 2013, more than 70,000 Maine children now have Alfond Scholarship Foundation college savings accounts in their own names.

Taken together, those funds now represent an investment of $35 million – and growing.

Add to that the matching funds being kicked in by parents, relatives, some employers and others and, as of the end of 2016, the total investment now exceeds $70 million.

Noted Powell with a knowing grin: “Harold Alfond loved matches.”

Indeed he did. The late Maine industrialist-turned-philanthropist’s legacy is deeply woven into the fabric of Maine’s higher education community, from large campus buildings adorned with his name right down to the toddlers, buoyed by an Alfond scholarship, who will one day walk those very hallways.

Until now, the scholarship program has centered its outreach on the website 500forbaby.org, which remains up and running to welcome the 12,000 or so infants born in Maine each year.

But the original recipients are now in second and third grades. Noted Quint: “We figure as kids get older, they’re not going to be interested in a website called ‘500forbaby.’ ”

Introducing myalfondgrant.org.

Operated through the Finance Authority of Maine, it’s a place where parents (and children, as they grow older) can easily access their account and check their current balance. At the same time, they can explore setting up a tax-deferred NextGen college savings plan alongside the Alfond account.

Some will undoubtedly scoff at all of this. They’ll point to the soaring price tags for four-year, private college – many now at or beyond $250,000 – and say, “What’s the use? It’s going to take a lot more than $500 in seed money from the Harold Alfond College Challenge to climb that mountain.”

A few important points:

For starters, said Quint, recent reports show that upward of 80 percent of Americans currently enrolled in higher education pursue something other than a four-year, residential degree.

Translation: Applied to a public university, a two-year community college degree or a welding certificate program, that $2,400-plus college savings account becomes a lot more significant – both in getting one’s foot in the door and lowering debt load upon graduation.

(Speaking of debt, it’s also worth noting that the Alfond Foundation recently unveiled a debt-relief program whereby students who work in science, technology, engineering or math jobs in Maine for at least five years will qualify for up to $60,000 in relief from outstanding college loans.)

Powell also notes that the costs of many elite, liberal arts colleges cannot keep skyrocketing forever. He envisions models, by the time many of today’s infants turn 18, whereby the intellectual content developed by such institutions will be much more widely available through individually targeted, online learning.

“I am by nature an optimist,” Powell said. “And what I would say is 18 years from now, the cost of higher education will be much, much lower.”

Now let’s look beyond the number-crunching.

Equally as vital as the actual $500 grant is how the Harold Alfond Scholarship Challenge taps into what Quint calls the “aspirational piece” of the higher education equation – particularly for parents who wish only the best for their children, but are hesitant to say so for fear of raising expectations that they might not be able to fulfill.

The Alfond account signals to that parent, in the most tangible way possible, that “someone else believes in my child. Someone sees potential in my child that I see as well,” Quint said.

Hearing that at the time of a child’s birth, she added, is “an incredibly powerful thing.”

Need proof?

Mounted on the wall in a meeting room at the Alfond Foundation is a huge banner full of handwritten messages from parents to their children.

The foundation saved the mural from the days when parents had to enroll in order for their child to get a $500 grant – these particular messages were scrawled during a sign-up event at a shopping mall.

“To Isaac,” reads one, “Dream big, work hard and the future is yours. Love, Mom and Dad.”

Thanks to Harold Alfond and those who strive to keep his name alive, every kid in Maine now hears that message starting on Day One. And lo and behold, it’s working.

Just ask the beer guy.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]