Saving for your education… again

Marketplace Staff Sep 12, 2008

Saving for your education… again

Marketplace Staff Sep 12, 2008


Tess Vigeland: If you’re saving for retirement, chances are you’re using a work-sponsored 401(k) plan. That’s where you set aside a portion of your salary and your company matches part of it. Hopefully.

But getting all the way from here to retirement isn’t always easy. You might want to choose a new profession. Take a few refresher courses. Besides those 401(k)s, a few forward-looking U.S. companies are offering employer-matched, portable savings accounts for what they call “lifelong learning.”

Katie Macpherson has our story.

Katie Macpherson: As an adult, you usually don’t have much wiggle room to change your life or switch careers. And even if you want to, say, go back to school, where do you get the money?

Paul Kelvington: One day I came into work and there was a big giant sign outside of the employee locker room that said “Hey, do you want to know more about getting into college again?” At that particular point in my restaurant career, I was finally starting to realize that there might be something else out there for me besides just waiting tables for the rest of my life.

At 35, Paul Kelvington worked full-time at an upscale Chicago restaurant. He had tried college twice and flunked out both times. But with the help of something called a Lifelong Learning Account, or LILA, Kelvington got his third chance.

Kelvington: I came into this thinking to myself “Even if I could go back and apply myself, there’s absolutely no way that I’m going to be able to afford this,” and the people who were running the LILAs program said to me, “Yes you can afford it and here’s how we’re going to help you do it.”

The outfit running the program was the nonprofit Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. For every dollar Kelvington put into a special account, his restaurant had agreed to put in another dollar. And this wasn’t a job training program. With the guidance of an education counselor, he could take courses in anything from computer science to fashion design.

Amy Sherman is a vice president at the Council. She says accounts like these fill a gaping hole in the financial aid market.

Amy Sherman: Except for the fortunate few that work for employers that have generous tuition policies, most working adults get very little in the way of financial assistance to pay for school.

But why would a company pay employees for an education that could help them leave their current job? Stanley Litow, a vice president at IBM, says supporting learning makes workers better employees.

Stanley Litow: And if they choose to leave IBM, they’ll enrich their communities and they’ll bring indirect benefit back to IBM.

For now, adult education savings accounts like these are limited to nonprofit pilot programs and a few companies like IBM and CVS Caremark that offer them as an attractive benefit. But Congress may make these accounts part of a national program, just like 401(k) retirement savings accounts. Employers would get tax breaks for contributions and employees wouldn’t pay taxes on what’s in their piggybanks. As baby boomers retire, lawmakers want to replace them with skilled workers.

But critics say these accounts should only be one of many ways that workers, particularly those who are low-income, can get an education. Peter Creticos is the director of the Institute for Work and the Economy.

Peter Creticos: I have to think that there are a lot of people who are struggling to put food on the table and pay their gasoline bills and so forth and they may have kids coming up and they’re thinking about the kids education and I think it’s gonna be difficult for many people to see their way through to making these kinds of training savings.

Right now, putting away money for adult education may not be at the top of everyone’s list. But that waiter, Paul Kelvington, says putting money in his lifelong learning account was the best thing that he ever did in his entire life. He went to college, and now he’s getting his master’s degree in social work.

In Washington, I’m Katie Macpherson for Marketplace.

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