'Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood' is now must-see viewing for parents

Mr. Rogers next to Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood image

Preschoolers who watch “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” on PBS have fun and learn practical skills necessary for growing and developing.

And now, thanks to a nationwide coalition that includes the Michigan Education Trust (MET), parents who tune in while the show is airing can pick up a few pointers of their own on building a college savings account and helping their child avoid amassing a mountain of student debt.

Public service announcements that are airing immediately before and after “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” episodes highlight the importance of a college education – and saving for one.

The spots were developed by the 529 College Savings Plans Network in conjunction with Fred Rogers Productions, the company that was founded by the beloved Fred Rogers and is the producer of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”

“This is a fun way to reach parents with a serious message: A 529 plan is an ideal tool for helping you meet your college savings goals and promise a brighter future for your little one, who ideally won’t be saddled with debt after attending college,” said MET Executive Director Robin Lott. “And considering that ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ is primarily watched by preschoolers, we’re reaching parents at the right time because the sooner they start saving for college, the better.”

Education is key for parents too

The “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” spots are just one part of an education campaign kicked off this spring by the 529 College Savings Plans Network, a 27-state alliance that involves 46 partners, including state treasurers, higher education agencies, financial service firms and other state officials.

The public-private partnership was formed to increase awareness of 529s, the state-led college savings plans designed to help families save for higher education and lessen reliance on student loans.

The campaign is also launching in advance of 529 Day – May 29 – an annual national event celebrating saving for college and the benefits of 529 plans, which take their name from the section of the Internal Revenue Code that allowed for their creation.

One message that the 529 College Savings Plans Network is driving home: More than 44 million Americans have student debt that eats away at paychecks, limits opportunities and leads them to put off buying homes and having children.

Michigan has three 529 plans: MET, which allows families to purchase future tuition at today’s prices, the Michigan Education Savings Program and the MI 529 Advisor Plan, each offering various investment options in which savings grow tax free. In addition, contributions to all Michigan 529 plans qualify for a state tax deduction.

The ultimate aim of the new 529 College Savings Plans Network campaign is to limit college debt for new generations by helping families plan ahead for higher education costs.

One aspect of the campaign will involve simply educating parents about 529 plans and the advantages they offer. According to a poll conducted by the network earlier this year, 68 percent of Americans have never heard of state-led 529 college savings plans.

“In Michigan, awareness is slightly higher but still not where we’d like it to be,” said Lott, noting that a survey of Michigan parents MET commissioned in 2018 found that those in the south-central and southeast parts of the state had the greatest familiarity, at around 50 percent, followed by the Saginaw Bay region at 41 percent, West Michigan at 36 percent and Northern Michigan at 25 percent.

Pay-As-You-Go can get you on the right path

Throughout 2019, the 529 College Savings Plans Network will engage young adult audiences on social media with the hashtag #529ForTheirFuture.

“We are going to encourage parents to invest in their children – not just money, but also time – and we will be spreading the message that doing so, even a little at a time, can make a huge difference,” Lott said, adding the MET’s Pay-As-You-Go purchase option is an easy way for Michigan families to start saving for college.

Savers can open a Pay-As-You-Go account with the purchase of just a single credit hour – not an entire semester’s worth of prepaid tuition as required by other MET contract options. They can add to their Pay-As-You-Go accounts whenever they want, on their own schedule, in increments of just $25 or more.

Pay-As-You-Go is a way for even those parents who are unable or unwilling to foot a child’s entire college bill to invest a little to help, Lott said.

In doing so, they would help resolve what the U.S. Department of Education describes as the student debt crisis. Consider these sobering facts:

  • The total amount of student debt is now at $1.5 trillion – surpassing Americans’ credit card and car loan bills and making it the second-highest debt category behind mortgages.
  • Fewer young people are buying homes, and college graduates are leaving rural areas because of their student debt, according to the Federal Reserve.
  • Federal student debt is growing at 17 percent – more than seven times the current rate of inflation.
  • One recent poll showed 20 percent of millennials expect to die before paying off their debt.

“Our research shows that an overwhelming majority of Michigan parents view a college education as an investment in their children’s future,” Lott said. “Now our mission is to educate them how a 529 plan can help them make that future even brighter.”