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Leavitt opens contest to start college savings

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Education and government officials want to ensure everyone who wants to go to college can get there.

Gov. Mike Leavitt Thursday kicked off a college savings poster contest for kindergarteners through ninth-graders. The "Drawing Your Dreams" contest is part of a program giving Utah families financial incentives to save for college.Participants will design posters about what they want to be when they grow up. Nine winners per grade will receive Utah Educational Savings Plan accounts ranging from $100 to $250; three more will receive grand prizes of $2,500, $1,500 and $1,000.

"As parents and others who care about the future educational opportunities our children will have, we must plan now to ensure that today's students will be able to afford to attend college," Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

The Utah Educational Savings Plan (UESP) Trust, launched two years ago, allows adults to invest up to $1,270 per year - an amount increased for annual inflation - on behalf of a child whose account was opened before age 17. The money must be used for college to get the benefits.

The investment and earnings are state-tax exempt; for federal tax purposes, earnings are deferred until the money is used for college, then taxed at the student's tax rate. Last year, UESP investments saw a 5.7 percent return, plus an additional 1 percent from a UESP endowment fund.

"If we as government leaders, higher education officials, and families of our current and future students work together, we can keep a college education within the reach of Utah's students," said Cecelia Foxley, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. "UESP is a great tool to do that."

Funds, managed by the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority and invested by the state treasurer, may be used for tuition and fees, books, room and board at any accredited college or university nationwide or Utah applied technology center.

"We don't think enough people have heard about the program," said Dale Hatch, deputy executive director of administration for the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority and deputy administrator for the UESP Trust.

"Our message is save a little now or borrow a lot later," Hatch said. "That's one thing the (State Board of) Regents is concerned about - the level of debt of students as they leave college. College is expensive, but it's a sound investment."

While student loans, most of which go through Hatch's office, are available, so is some $60 billion in financial aid nationwide, from local, state, federal and institutional resources.

Earlier this week, the the Coalition of America's Colleges and Universities, which includes the University of Utah, launched the "College Is Possible" campaign.

The campaign, which will continue through the year 2000, comes in response to a national survey indicating the public overestimates the price of college and underestimates available funding resources, increasing the likelihood students will miss out on higher education.

"There is a fair amount (of financial aid) around," said Paul Brinkman, U. associate vice president for budget and planning. The U. last year provided some $20 million in financial aid. Full-time tuition is around $2,700 a year.

"There's a considerable range of options for people," Brinkman said. "It seems to me if you want to go to school you probably can get there."

For more information on financial resources, call the U.S. Department of Education at 1-800-433-3243 or visit (www.CollegeIsPossible.org).

For more information on UESP or the poster contest, contact Dale Hatch at 321-7251 or Geri Pe-ter-sen, college savings program officer, at 321-7182, or visit (www.uesp.org).