AUBURN — Amelia Turgeon is only 6 months old, but her parents, Elizabeth and Jonathan Turgeon of Auburn, have already started a savings account for her to go to college.

“It’s never too early, college is so expensive,” said her mother. “We definitely want her to go to college.”

Like thousands of other Maine babies, Amelia is an “Alfond Baby,” one receiving a $500 grant from the Alfond Scholarship Foundation for college.

The foundation was created by the late Maine philanthropist Harold Alfond. “It was his wish to give every Maine baby a head start,” said Elizabeth Vanderweide of the Finance Authority of Maine, which administers the program.

The program works like this: Every baby who lives in Maine is eligible for $500 for college if the parents open a NextGen College Investing account before the baby’s first birthday, Vanderweide said. “It takes 15 minutes to open an account.”

The NextGen account works like a 401(k) retirement plan. Money invested is after tax, but growth of the earnings over the years is tax-free, as long as the money is used for higher education.

“The beauty of this is it’s given to every Maine baby without any obligation,” Vanderweide said. Once the account is opened, parents don’t have to invest more. The hope is that they will, so that they and their child will have money saved for college instead of taking college loans.

The Alfond Baby “is the only program of its kind in the country. It’s a universal grant gift to every Maine baby.”

Alfond announced the program a few months before he died in 2007. The program started as a pilot in 2008, and became statewide in 2009. It’s widely supported by maternity ward staff and pediatrician’s offices, who spread the word to new parents.

This year 40 percent of Maine babies born are being enrolled in the college saving program, Vanderweide said. That’s a high rate, up sharply from 8 percent before the program.

“We just reached our 5,000th baby,” she said. “That’s a big milestone.”

That milestone’s name is Sebastian Bond, born May 6 to Melanie and Andrew Bond of Brunswick.

“The $500 grant is very generous,” said Andrew Bond. “It caused us to start thinking about this earlier than we might have.” Saving for college is easy to put off when it’s 18 years down the road, he said. Starting early will allow the savings to compound.

Elizabeth Turgeon agreed, saying they signed up for the program at the hospital when their daughter was born. “You have time to save,” she said, adding that having savings is better than borrowing. “Loans, with all their interest, are terrible to pay.”

The program is changing the culture of young parents, Vanderweide said. “Already 27 percent of families are contributing something to the accounts. Before we didn’t have much of a mass of people opening accounts. It’s exciting.” Many are opening NextGen accounts for the siblings of the babies, she said.

The program has the power to increase the number of Mainers going to college, said Robert Dana, University of Maine vice president of student affairs. Dana called the Alfond program visionary, one that will get more parents saving for and talking about college to their children at younger ages.

“It begins the process of lowering the barriers to a college education,” Dana said. “It helps parents realize, ‘It’s within our reach.’”

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