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Unlocking Bright Horizons: Transforming Education Financing

Patricia Roberts is a guiding force in higher education finance, with over two decades of experience at Citi, Merrill Lynch, and AllianceBernstein Investments. As the COO at Gift of College, Inc., she’s dedicated to revolutionizing financial wellness, offering tools like 529 college savings, ABLE disability savings, and tax-free student loan repayment assistance in the workplace. Patricia’s influence extends beyond the corporate realm; she’s the author of “Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans” and she has contributed to the design of initiatives like the NYC Kids RISE Save for College program, touching the lives of thousands. Her journey, marked by her attainment of higher education despite challenging circumstances, and her triumph over student loan debt, fuels her mission to empower families through financial literacy.

What motivated you to dedicate over two decades to educating families about preparing for the cost of higher education?

As both a former student repaying tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and as a mom-to-be with no idea how I’d be able to save for my own child’s future, I was immediately interested when the topic of helping families invest for future higher education expenses, pursuant to Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, was assigned to me as an investment advisory attorney at Citigroup in the late 1990’s. 

Beyond this, my strong belief in the importance of higher education motivated me then, and continues to motivate me, to help others achieve it. By way of background, as a first-generation student from a low-income, single parent household, I nearly missed the opportunity to attend college because of cost. I am certain that my attainment of higher education is THE reason I was able to improve the quality of my life and the lives of family members. 

Lastly, my passion for helping families save for higher education is also fueled by personal and professional knowledge of the difference that planning ahead for the cost of education can make for students and families. I am determined to help others achieve their academic and career dreams with as little debt and regret as possible. 

How has your work at Citi, Merrill Lynch, and AllianceBernstein Investments contributed to helping families avoid student loan debt?

Higher education is typically the second largest investment that a family will make, second only to home purchase.
Through my legal and product management roles in the education savings divisions at major financial services firms, and through management of the unique private-public sector relationships underlying some of the largest college savings programs in the nation, my efforts helped educate parents, grandparents, financial advisors, tax accountants, teachers, and other professionals who work with families, about the existence and usefulness of 529 college savings plans. And coupled with the legislative and industry-wide efforts I actively participated in to enhance the attractiveness of these plans, I have helped tens of thousands of families become better prepared for the cost of post-secondary education and thereby, able to avoid or minimize student loan debt. 

As the Chief Operating Officer at Gift of College, Inc., what are your primary focuses in bringing education- and disability-related financial wellness awareness and benefits into the workplace?

By providing education on and access to both 529 (college savings) and ABLE (disability savings) plans in the workplace, I am focused on helping both employers and their employees in a number of meaningful ways: 

1. Enhanced Knowledge – With two-thirds of Americans unfamiliar with 529 plans and an even greater number unfamiliar with ABLE plans, bringing awareness of these easy-to-use, tax-advantaged savings and investing plans to the workplace is priceless. Without knowledge of these plans and a streamlined way to contribute to them via payroll deduction, employees miss out on the many benefits they offer and the financial independence they can lead to.

2. Improved Engagement/Outlook – Financial concerns often weigh heavily on employees’ minds and can lead to mental and physical health issues, absenteeism, and distractions at work. Employees who are empowered with information and tools they need to address financial concerns and plan for long-term goals are more likely to have improved focus and optimism about their family’s future. Beyond this, educating employers about their ability to take a tax-deduction for their contributions to employees’ accounts is another rewarding aspect of my work.

3. Increased Savings – Research has shown that individuals save 75% more when they contribute to 529 plan accounts directly from their paycheck. Without the money first passing through their hands, employees are less likely to spend it elsewhere. And when employers choose to offer a one-time or ongoing match to these accounts, they are helping employees save more and move closer to their goals.

4. Improved Recruitment and Retention – Employers know that employee turnover can be disruptive to business and the cost of replacing employees can be quite high. Thus, offering financial wellness benefits like 529 college savings and disability savings plans, as well as tax-free student loan repayment assistance, helps employers demonstrate that they care about concerns of importance to employees and helps them to stand out when recruiting new employees. Sharing my knowledge with employers and those they employ can lead to improved productivity and reduced turnover.

What inspired you to write the book “Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans“?

I found myself with unexpected time on my hands when my work travel schedule significantly slowed down during the pandemic in 2020. Around this same time, a research study had revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans were unfamiliar with 529 college savings plans, while almost daily news reports were highlighting the rise in student loan debt and the challenges borrowers were having with repaying it.

As a subject matter expert on tax-advantaged ways to save and invest for many different forms of higher education, and as a mom whose son was about to enter his senior year of college, I knew firsthand just how helpful preparing in advance for higher educational expenses could be. I also recognized the sense of both pride and relief I was experiencing with my son being on track to graduate debt free from college in the coming year. 

With this in mind, I wanted to share with other parents, in an easy-to-understand and encouraging way, steps I took to save for college and the sense of accomplishment that comes with having been well-prepared for those expenses when they rolled around. 

With no end in sight with the pandemic and with an increased abundance of free time that I suspected I would likely never see again, I thought, “If not now, when?” I quickly concluded that there was no time like the present to complement the work I had been doing for years, by writing a book to make an even greater impact in the lives of others. My goal was simple: to educate and inspire other parents to have a favorable experience when it came to getting their children to and through higher education.

I dedicated the book to my late mom, and the foreword to the book was written by my soon-to-be college graduate son, Ben, who reflected on his experience of growing up in a family that prioritized saving for his future education and the opportunities he was able to pursue as a result.

Can you explain the significance and purpose of the non-profit organization called NYC Kids RISE and its Save for College Program, which you helped design and launch?

NYC Kids RISE is a nonprofit organization that aims to make college and career training more achievable for New York City children by providing a way for families, schools, and communities with a way to work together to invest in and save for their children’s futures. In partnership with with NYC Public Schools and the City of New York, NYC Kids RISE manages the Save for College Program. I was delighted to lend my time and talent in 2017 and 2018 to help design and launch this incredible program. And I am so happy to see that more than 200,000 New York City children now have scholarship accounts for their future college and career training!

How did you manage to pay back tens of thousands of dollars of your own student loan debt while saving for your son’s future education from infancy?

Despite working multiple jobs while pursuing our various undergraduate and graduate degrees, my husband and I together accumulated over $100,000 of educational debt. We were both extremely diligent about making our required monthly student loan payments on time and whenever we found we had a little extra money—from a tax refund or bonus at work for instance—we would apply those funds toward the loans’ principal. Beyond this, we were also careful not to overspend on non-essentials. 

Once our infant son arrived, we were absolutely determined to find a way to be financially prepared to help him pursue his dreams someday, so that he could avoid the stress we were under in repaying the cost of our own education. This was our motivation to begin saving, directly from our paychecks, into a 529 college savings for his future. Making automatic contributions took the guesswork out of saving and helped us avoid the potential of diverting funds for other purposes as a growing family with increased expenses. We held our “why” close to our hearts – which was wanting our son to be free to explore his academic and career dreams and to enter adulthood someday without being weighed down by student loan debt as his dad and I once were.

Having a positive mindset helped us to stay encouraged as we paid down our own debt in full while saving for our son’s future. We reminded ourselves that our short-term sacrifices would pay off in the long run – and they certainly did – as evidenced by our son’s fairly recent debt-free graduation from college.

What media outlets and publications have featured your expertise in education financing topics?

I have appeared nationally on ABC World News Now and America This Morning, CNBC’s Squawk Box and The News with Shepard Smith, Good Morning America, and on major stations across the U.S. like ABC7 (NYC) and KRON4 (San Francisco). I’ve also appeared on many podcasts, including Farnoosh Torabi’s So Money. Additionally, I have been featured in print and digital publications – including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Authority Magazine, Barron’s, Behind Her Brand,, Business Insider, Business Journal, CNET, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Fox Business, Money, New York Times, Newsweek, Parents, Real Simple, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, the Wall Street Journal, and HR publications like SHRM and Talent Management.

As a sought-after presenter, what are some of the key topics you address in your presentations?

In addition to speaking extensively about aspects of saving for college with 529 plans and planning for disability related expenses with ABLE (disability savings) plans, I discuss topics relating to women and money, moving from caregiving to self-care, making small steps to big change, the power of authenticity in leadership and personal branding, why visibility is your responsibility, why your past or current circumstances need not define or limit you, and ways employers are uniquely positioned to help with saving for or repaying the cost of higher education, among others.

How does your legal background in NY and NJ complement your work in education financing?

My legal background serves me well every single day. Understanding legal, regulatory, and legislative aspects of higher education financing is extremely useful as is the ability to see the big picture along with the smallest of details, and to reach consensus when parties have conflicting views.

What role do you play within the NYC Bar Association’s Education and the Law Committee?

The Education and the Law committee of the NYC Bar Association addresses a wide range of legal issues surrounding pre-K through higher education, including education finance, governance, legislative proposals, and special education. Most recently, as a member of the committee, I hosted a webinar for NYC Bar Association members and non-members entitled “529 Plans Unveiled: Most Frequently Overlooked Features” to help improve awareness and understanding of 529 college savings plans. 

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