CARIBOU, Maine — Since its debut in 2008, the Harold Alfond College Challenge has gone from zero to 10,000 with no signs of slowing down.
This summer little Bentley Coyle of Caribou, born on May 27, became the 10,000th Maine baby to earn the $500 kick-start toward higher education.
The program was formed through the estate of the late Harold Alfond, founder of Dexter Shoe Co. To date it has contributed more than $5 million to NextGen college savings accounts to help families prepare early for the costs of higher education.
Any baby born in Maine is eligible for the Finance Authority of Maine-administered grant and must sign up before their first birthday.
“We think this is pretty great and are thrilled the 10,000th baby has started a college savings account,” said Martha Johnston, FAME director of education products and relationships. “We hope it goes on and on.”
Bentley’s mother, Kelley Coyle, 22, said she heard about the program through the media and immediately knew she would sign up.
“Why wouldn’t you want to sign on?” Coyle said. “It’s getting him ready [and] he will have a little to start his college education.”
For Coyle, it’s not too early to begin instilling the value of higher education in her children — Bentley’s big sister Emberlie, 5, has her own college savings fund going — something she is learning for herself this fall.
“A college degree is very important,” she said. “I’ve been out of school for five years now and I just enrolled at Northern Maine Community College.”
Coyle is pursuing a degree in business administration and hopes to continue on toward a degree in physical therapy.
“I waited to go back to school and really, to be financially stable, you need higher education,” she said. “It’s really important for my kids and I’m really excited about it.”
The first of its kind program in the country, the Harold Alfond College Challenge promotes higher education across the board.
“These funds are for individuals to finance some form of higher education,” said Beth Bordowitz, CEO at FAME. “Whatever is appropriate for that person, we hope everyone will find that appropriate level of higher education.”
Studies have shown, Johnston said, that children with a college savings account are seven times more likely to go on to college.
Families are not obligated to contribute to the their child’s Alfond fund beyond that initial $500. Johnston noted even if no additional dollars are added, and assuming a rate of 8 percent over 18 years, the account will grow to $2,000.
According to information released by FAME, 36.5 percent of all eligible babies born from Jan. 1, 2009, to July 31, 2010, had enrolled in the program.
Bentley’s home county of Aroostook had the fifth-highest enrollment in the state, according to the release. To help get the word out, FAME hosts “Future Faces of Maine Casting Calls” around the state, inviting newborns and families to meet with program staff to assist in the application process.
At the same time, families receive a free, professional photograph.
“It is just such a good feeling when we hold these casting calls,” Bordowitz said. “Many of our people volunteer their Saturdays to help out.”
She said the last casting call in Portland attracted 200 potential scholarship recipients over a four-hour period.
Several hundred miles to the north, Coyle said her family had their own casting call thanks to FAME when they had a professional sitting with a photographer in honor of Bentley’s status.
“It was pretty cool and pretty random to get that call that he was the 10,000th baby,” Coyle said.
While all Maine newborns are eligible for the scholarship, Johnston and Bordowitz said it is very important that families apply in time.
“Don’t let the opportunity go by,” Johnston said. “The account must be opened before the child’s first birthday.”
She added the staff at FAME is available to assist with the application process, which is now online at www.500forbaby.org.