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Youth Forward Wisconsin: Multi-institute Extension Team Brings Research on Universal Child Savings Accounts to Communities

Youth Forward Wisconsin is a movement supported by UW-Madison Division of Extension and local Extension educators ​from 17 Wisconsin communities. This team is providing the tools to understand and implement universal child savings account programs to help Wisconsin youth reach their full potential. The Youth Forward Wisconsin team received an Extension Innovation Grant to support the work of community engagement around Universal Child Savings Accounts. The article below shares their actions, outcomes and next steps.


Authors: Chelsea Wunnicke & Jenny Abel  


Research shows that children with small-dollar accounts for higher education do better  academically than those without college savings. Students with Children’s Savings Accounts  (CSAs) do better in school and are three times more likely to attend higher education, and four  times more likely to graduate 1. Community supported Child Savings Accounts are associated  with promising outcomes for children and their caregivers across the life course, including  improved early child socioemotional development, child health, maternal mental health,  educational expectations, and academic performance 2.  

In response to this research, multiple other states and geographies have implemented Universal  CSA programs. Today, more than 129 Children’s Savings Account programs cover over 1.2  million children nationwide. Other states with programs include: Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska,  Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, and Maine (2). Wisconsin has one successful CSA program,  Fund My Future Milwaukee, and Extension was engaged in initial research on feasibility for CSA  programs in rural communities in Richland County, WI. With educational disparities, workforce  readiness, and need for local economic development as persistent problems in Wisconsin,  Extension is well positioned to provide research-based strategies to impact educational  attainment, asset accumulation, and promote equity. In 2020, Innovation Grant funding enabled the creation of “Youth Forward Wisconsin,” a community of practice of Extension Educators  interested in furthering their understanding of Universal CSA programs and bringing this  information to their communities. 


Create a formal network of Extension Educators to support each other in the work of community  engagement around Universal Child Savings Accounts. 

Establish a framework for local communities to create and sustain Universal CSA programs in  their geographies with an appropriate role for Extension in incubation and ongoing family  engagement & education.


Created a community of practice of 21 Extension professionals working together to bring  research on the benefits of Universal Child Savings Accounts to their communities. We named  this initiative Youth Forward Wisconsin and brought this commitment into plans of work and the  public facing Extension website.  

Engaged in a mentee relationship with Indiana Youth Institute, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and participated in the Midwest CSA Consortium to gain insights from other  states that have launched successful CSA programs.  

Organized Q&A panels to raise internal Extension awareness of the unique considerations of  different communities in Wisconsin regarding their access to higher education, including African  American, Native American, Hmong/Hmoob, Latinx, Rural, Students with disabilities, and  Immigrant families.  

Educated community partners on the research base, best practices, examples from other  states, and opportunities to establish local Universal CSA programs. Extension collated  research to create a toolkit that summarizes the essential roles that must be filled by authoring  fact sheets for potential Funder, Outreach, and Coordinator partners.  

Conducted two focus groups to gain insights from parents–the potential end-users of these  accounts–on their preferences and thoughts about their children’s future opportunities. 


New community partnerships were built, and the information that Extension brought forward  regarding Universal Children’s Savings Accounts was relevant and valued. Examples of these  partnerships are Dunn County Community Foundation, Wauzeka School District, Head Start  Association, Financial Empowerment Center Racine, and Community Foundation of the Fox  Valleys. In the initial community assessments Extension Educators across the state found that  community partners were interested in the synergistic possibilities of establishing Universal CSA  programs, but had little to no prior knowledge of the research base or process. Upon hearing a  presentation from the Extension Educator, 80% of community partners self-reported being “very  interested and ready for the next step” to move toward a CSA program in their community. 

Quotes from community needs assessments:  

  • Chippewa: “really like that it is for all youth, not only those who excel at sports or academically” 
  • Clark: “children need to have hope and a road to a brighter future to help them grow”
  • Eau Claire: “we have students where this might be the only trigger or opportunity”
  • Racine: “In order for a Children Savings Account to be impactful, I think the community would have to trust the system” 
  • Richland: “the earlier a program starts, the more the investment will grow”
  • Washburn: “I do think it sounds like a promising idea if every child in the county is eligible” 
  • Washington: “We would love to see every student have the opportunity to advance their future opportunities”

Through the presentation of information to a Wisconsin state legislative committee hearing,  Extension is now recognized as a subject-matter expert in Universal CSA research and  Wisconsin community engagement. Additional statewide press brought further attention to  CSAs through a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on the opportunity for Wisconsin CSA  programs, featuring a quote from Extension Educator, Chelsea Wunnicke.  

Extension Educators improved their knowledge of the unique considerations of different  communities in Wisconsin regarding their access to higher education, which impacts  programming in the institutes of Human Development and Relationships, Positive Youth  Development, Health and Wellbeing, and Community Development.  

Next Steps 

Engage in additional community readiness assessments using formal tools to assess  geographies of greatest potential for CSA programs.  

Work with a team of graduate students from La Follette School on cost-benefit analysis of  statewide policy proposals for universal savings options. Help them center equity by requesting  a heat-map of Wisconsin that shows geographies of potential greatest impact with intersecting  variables that impact educational attainment and asset accumulation.  

Update outreach materials to provide YFW community of practice members with a robust  outreach kit with up-to-date research information and best practices for engagement.  

Document best-practices for parent focus groups and work with Extension Educators to host  additional focus groups, with planned locations in Dunn County, Fox Valley, and Southwest  Wisconsin.  

Continue engagement with the Midwest CSA Consortium mentorship program, partnered with  Indiana Youth Institute, for continued access to new research and best practices as Youth  Forward Wisconsin contributes to the field of CSAs with Extension incubating these programs in  Wisconsin in a way that is unique nationwide.  

Youth Forward WI Team: Todd Wenzel, Mary Ann Schilling, Luisa Gerasimo, Anna DeMers, Lissa  Radke, Jeanne Walsh, Mary Campbell Wood, Yia Lor, Amanda Griswold, Chelsea Wunnicke, Sarah  Hawks, Erin Conway, Fabiola Diaz, MaryBeth Wohlrabe, Katie Gellings, Carol Bralich, Nancy Vance,  Sarah Thompson.

Extension Leadership: Jenny Abel, Brandon Hofstedt, Jenna Klink, Danielle Hairston Green, JulieAnn Stawicki.

Stakeholders & Partners: UW-Madison Center for Financial Security and La Follette School of Public Affairs (J. Michael Collins & Morgan Edwards), Indiana Youth Institute (Clint  Kugler & Phil Maurizi), Upper Midwest Children’s Savings Account Consortium, Charles Stewart Mott  Foundation, Edvest & WI Department of Financial Institutions (Linda Lambert & Jessica Wentzel), WI  Head Start Assn. 


  1. Assets and Education Initiative (AEDI). (2013). Building Expectations, Delivering Results: Asset Based Financial Aid and the Future of Higher Education. In W. Elliott (Ed.), Biannual report on the assets and education field. Lawrence, KS. 
  2. Children’s Savings Accounts: A core part of the equity agenda. Report from Asset Funders Network.

Impact report-YFW Innovation grant 1

An EEO/AA employer, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension provides equal opportunities in  employment and programming, including Title VI, Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504  of the Rehabilitation Act requirements.

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