The future of Arkansas is in the hands of the children and education officials, along with Sen. Gilbert Baker, visited Sallie Cone Elementary School Friday to present a new way to make the future a little brighter.

A press conference was held at Sallie Cone in front of a class of fourth-grade students to discuss the state’s Aspiring Scholars Matching Grant, a program that makes funds for higher education available to qualifying families who wish to invest in the Arkansas 529 gift plan.

“Once you are educated, you can’t have that gift taken away from you and your education is preparing you for jobs that perhaps have not even been created yet,” Conway Superintendent Greg Murry said. “So it is important for you to be able to obtain a college education.”

Murry told the students a college education not only provides a better career, it also makes a person healthy and wise and added the aspiring scholars program is a great opportunity for their parents to save money for it.

Arkansas families who earn an adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less qualify for a one-to-one match of up to $500 a year through this program and those who earn $30,000 or less qualify for a two-to-one match.

Steve Floyd, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, told the group the program started as a bill sponsored by their senator, Gilbert Baker, and it was passed by Gov. Mike Beebe.

“Gov. Beebe is very supportive of this program and he gets up in front of people every day and says higher education is the key to our future and the key to the economy and welfare in the state,” Floyd said. “And even though you all are fourth-graders, it’s not too early to begin investing some money.”

Baker told the kids gathered that they had one job and one job only once they were let out of school Friday to go home and tell their moms and dads about this opportunity for free college funds.

“Now is the time to start putting money back for college,” Baker said. “A lot of students wait until the 11th- or 12th-grade to start saving, but often that is too late.”

University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin was also instrumental in bringing this program to Arkansas. He said he was proud to be in one of the first states in the nation to have an investment plan to give students a head start on saving for college.

“And I’d like to thank the legislature for taking what was started years ago and making it much better,” Hardin said. “The matching funds are available for up to $500 a year and this $500 is very important for you and your parents.”

Hardin also asked the students if they knew the top reason students drop out of college in Conway, in Arkansas and across the nation. The students guessed correctly by saying it costs too much.

“The bottom line is this $500 can mean the difference in a student staying in college and dropping out,” Hardin said.

Mike Leach, policy director of the Southern Good Faith Fund, said this program was partially modeled after his group’s Savings for Education, Entrepreneurship and Down payments plan in Helena-West Helena.

“Programs like this are more important than just the savings because these youngsters in Helena-West Helena are already talking about where they want to go to college and what careers they’d like to have,” Leach said.

According to Leach, the applications for the Aspiring Scholars Matching Grant are being accepted now through April 30. Those interested should visit the program’s Web site at www.thegiftplan.com or contact the treasure’s office at the department of education at 682-1422.