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Illinois State Treasurer Mike Frerichs has always been passionate about improving higher education. He served as chairman of the Illinois Legislature’s Higher Education Committee and ran for treasurer on a platform of improving higher education. Upon entering the Office of the Treasurer in 2015, he set his sights on helping more kids go to college by increasing participation in the state’s college savings plan. He knew this would require significant outreach effort on a limited budget to ensure that the many residents who stood to benefit from the plan were aware of it.


Treasurer Frerichs needed to find a more efficient way to identify and reach the Illinoisans most likely to sign up for 529 plans, especially underrepresented populations and individuals with younger children (who thus have more time to save).

State-operated 529 college savings plans provide an effective way to plan and save for steadily rising college costs, yet only about 3% of families actually use them. Treasurer Frerichs wanted to see more Illinoisans participate in the plan. As a government agency, his office functions on a strict budget and marketing efforts must demonstrate strong ROI. Yet, the office was spending money on traditional marketing efforts that kept proving ineffective—particularly so with the populations he most wanted to reach.


Civis’s predictive modeling allowed Treasurer Frerichs and his office to optimize outreach efforts by identifying the precise cross-section of individuals most likely to sign up for the saving plan, and the specific messaging that was most effective. Thousands more Illinois children have greater opportunities to attend college as a result.


Civis created a predictive model from more than 15 years’ worth of data for current 529 account holders. They identified a cross-section of residents the treasurer most wanted to reach and the people most likely to actually sign up—but who, in the absence of effective outreach, likely would not. Civis also performed extensive message testing on the office’s existing outreach language.

Civis used these insights to recommend impactful, individualized messages for key targets and suggested a switch from the office’s traditional direct mail deployment tactics to a digital-first strategy (allowing for superior performance tracking). They created a digital dashboard that allowed the office to view trends and results and therefore make the smartest decisions about how to allocate limited resources.

The Results

  • Dramatic Increase in Enrollments
    • Since Civis’s engagement began, the number of Illinoisans enrolled in the 529 plan has risen by 40%
  • More Account Signups
    • 2017, 2018, and 2019 each broke a record for new account signups
  • Increased Impact Amongst Target Communities
    • Mail targets were 4.4x more likely to open an account compared to general population
  • Sustained Growth
    • The enrollment rate continues to grow at a rate of 8% annually, and individuals identified by Civis are more than 4.4. times as likely to sign up

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