Three teams emerged as finalists in the local 2020 American Dream Ideas Challenge with proposals to increase use of tax credits among eligible Utahns, develop preventative mental health services and build an intelligent higher education platform to drive college completion.
The three finalists were selected from five teams that presented their ideas on Jan. 16, 2020, to a community advisory board co-chaired by University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. In addition, the board agreed to provide a fourth team—Dream Up—with seed funding to help it further advance its proposal to connect job seekers and employers using technology, skills training and placement services.
“It was a wonderful experience to be part of the evaluating team as we were pitched brilliant ideas from Utahns who are seeking to change our state for the better,” Cox said. “The projects the American Dream Ideas Challenge national board will receive from Utah are compelling, technologically advanced, and true models to quickly advance the income of middle-class Utahns 10% or more by 2022—and the sky is the limit from there.”
The three local finalists will pitch their ideas to the advisory board of Schmidt Futures, sponsor of the Alliance for the American Dream, on March 24, 2020. The teams will be competing with finalists from The Ohio State University, Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
During that meeting, which will take place at the University of Utah, the advisory board will select teams to move on to the final round of the competition this summer, with up to $1 million in funding from Schmidt Futures on the line.
Schmidt Futures selected the four public universities in April 2018 as anchor institutions in the Alliance for the American Dream and challenged them with developing ideas capable of boosting net income by 10% for 10,000 middle-class households in their respective communities.
In all, the U received 42 ideas in this year’s challenge.
“The innovation and creativity of the proposals were impressive,” Watkins said. “We appreciate the work that went into each idea, a clear signal of how much Utahns care about each other and about improving their communities. Our finalists offer approaches with potential to make a real difference and we look forward to working with them in the coming months.”
This year’s top three local finalists, each of whom will receive $30,000 to further refine their ideas, are:
This team proposes to increase participation in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit (EITC) programs by offering free tax services in trusted health care settings, which are visited regularly by Utah families with children.
Many eligible households do not participate in these tax programs due to barriers in completing federal income tax forms, leaving considerable resources unclaimed by eligible Utahns. Utah’s participation rate in the tax programs ranks among the lowest in the country; approximately 60,000 families in Utah are currently eligible for the programs but don’t participate, according to the team’s proposal. The team will target a portion of that group—households with children—and estimates those who participate could have an average annual income increase of $3,000 to $5,000.
To address the growing problem of degree completion and subsequent low earnings for those without a degree, the team is building an intelligent higher education platform known as SAGE to provide both a timely resource and delivery of proactive nudges to influence struggling students’ behavior and outcomes.
The proposal aims to address the unrealized return on investment that occurs when people earn some college credits but do not complete their degrees. That leaves these students in a disadvantaged economic situation, often with heavy debt coupled with lower earning potential.
In Utah, it is estimated that there are more than 450,000 individuals with some college, but no degree.
The team’s SAGE program will provide proactive nudges via a telephone app at key moments, delivering answers and help to students 24/7.
This initiative addresses the unmet need for mental health services that is taking a toll in emotional suffering, lost earnings and problems such as homelessness, suicide and mental illness.
The team will initially focus on college students using three approaches—an app, a website and targeted support groups—to provide preventative and scalable mental health promotion services.
Research shows approximately 400,000 youth in Utah have mental health needs and more than 100,000 adults experience serious mental illness, making them susceptible to income loss and health care expenses. Of serious psychiatric illnesses, 75% begin before age 25; additionally, among college students, depression and anxiety are the most cited reasons for academic difficulties.
The goal of Enhance is to develop a preventative program among college students aimed at improving psychological well-being and healthy, successful functioning and supplementing, when needed, other mental health services.
“This American Dream challenge process has brought together amazing people and dynamic teams to develop solutions for our community,” said Courtney McBeth, project director and special assistant to the president. “We are thrilled to have three finalist teams with ideas focused on innovative approaches to mental health, college completion and expanded access to tax credits.”
Last year’s top Utah finalist—the Utah Coal Country Strike Team—placed second in the national pitch competition and received $1.4 million in total funding from Schmidt Futures, the University of Utah and the Utah Legislature. The Coal Country team is working to boost the economy in Carbon and Emery counties, hard hit by the decline in reliance on coal, through workforce training, tourism infrastructure, housing revitalization and economic development.