All Online Exclusives

Saving for Life’s Biggest Moments

Meet the William & Mary alumnae behind Virginia529

July 2, 2024
By Catherine Tyson ’20

Mary Grayson Morris J.D. ’81, M.L.T. ’82, P ’07 (far left) and Leslie Crudele J.D. ’19 (second from right, back row) are shown with Virginia Del. Betsy Carr (third from left, front row) and former Virginia Secretary of Education Fran Bradford (second from right, front row), along with students participating in the Virginia College Advising Corps program. (Courtesy photo)

“How am I going to pay for retirement?” and “How am I going to pay for my kids to go to college?” — those are two of Americans’ chief financial worries, says Mary Grayson Morris J.D. ’81, M.L.T. ’82, P ’07.

Easing these worries is the career mission of Morris and Leslie Crudele J.D. ’19, two William & Mary Law School graduates leading Virginia529 in helping families plan, save and achieve their financial goals.

As a senior assistant attorney general for Virginia in the 1990s, Morris was instrumental in building Virginia529’s original prepaid college savings program. Partnering with Diana Cantor, the organization’s first director, Morris contributed to the creation of a program designed to make higher education more affordable and accessible for Virginians.

Three decades later, with Morris at the helm as CEO, Virginia529 offers a vastly expanded suite of financial resources spanning education, retirement and disability. This evolution prompted a recent rebranding, which changed the organization’s formal name from the Virginia College Savings Plan to the Commonwealth Savers Plan.

Headshot of Mary Morris
Mary Grayson Morris J.D. ’81, M.L.T. ’82, P ’07

Under Morris’ leadership, Virginia529 has reached new heights. A national leader among 529 programs — state-sponsored organizations offering tax-advantaged savings plans — Virginia529 is the largest such program in the country, managing more than $100 billion in assets, with account holders in every state. According to their 2024 Vision Report, 3 million families are saving for educational costs with one of Virginia529’s programs.

For many William & Mary families, Virginia529 is an important part of the puzzle for financing higher education.

“During the spring 2024 term, almost 500 families utilized a Virginia529 account to assist with covering the costs of their students’ education,” says Joe Dobrota, director of financial aid at William & Mary.

Awarding $50 million in grants and scholarships annually, William & Mary is taking steps toward greater affordability. Beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, the university committed to covering full tuition and fees for all in-state Pell Grant recipients and announced a $2.5-million scholarship and applied learning endowment for Pell Grant-eligible students from outside Virginia. According to Department of Education data, in 2019-2020, more than 93% of Pell Grant recipients nationwide came from families earning less than $60,000 per year. Nearly half of all first-generation college students receive Pell Grants.

Morris’ strong belief in the importance of 529 savings plans stems from her own experience with paying for education. As a first-year law student at William & Mary in 1978, she worked three jobs and struggled to balance academics with her personal and work life. As a result, her grades slipped. “Between work, school and family, I was dealing with a lot. It wasn’t easy,” she says.

During her second year, she pulled back on work hours, focused more time on academics and made a tremendous comeback. She improved so much that she won an award from W&M Law School. “I’ve always called it the most improved player award,” she says with a smile.

Explaining her turnaround, Morris gives a large part of the credit to the support of the W&M community surrounding her. One influential mentor was Toni Massaro J.D. ’80, then editor-in-chief of the William & Mary Law Review. Morris says: “I don’t know what it was, but she saw something in me. She was my legal research and writing teaching assistant and my performance in that class earned me a spot on Law Review – she always encouraged me and everyone else!”

Massaro later recommended Morris as a teaching assistant to Tim Sullivan ’66, then associate dean of W&M Law School, who would go on to become the university’s 25th president. Sullivan “took a chance on me,” Morris says, and she got the job. Years after graduating from law school, she drew on her connection with Sullivan to ask him to serve on the board of Virginia529, which he did.

Morris moved on from W&M to build a highly successful career, gaining experience across government and private sector work and expertise in different domains of law. Her stellar track record and early experience working on Virginia529 made her an ideal candidate to become the organization’s CEO in 2007.

"Becoming the CEO of Virginia529 has been the best thing that's ever happened in my career. Full stop,” Morris says.

As the mother of two daughters — one of whom, Callie “Cass” Morris ’07, followed her to William & Mary, while the other chose not to go to a four-year institution after high school — Morris is a firm advocate of helping students find the educational path that’s right for them, a philosophy that Virginia529 champions through its programs.

Account holders can now apply their tax-free savings toward a variety of expenses beyond the traditional four-year college experience. This includes savings programs for graduate studies or professional degrees and registered apprenticeships.

Leading the charge to further widen Virginia529’s coverage of educational expenses is Crudele, a young lawyer serving as the organization’s government relations director.

Leslie Crudele J.D. ’19

When applying to law school, Crudele was attracted by William & Mary’s prestige, competitive price and focus on cultivating “citizen lawyers.”

“I loved the lens of the citizen lawyer and thinking about ‘How can we help people and bring good into the world through the power of law?’” she says.

Her drive for social impact landed Crudele a job as a summer associate at Virginia529. It was there that she met Morris, who was quickly impressed by her fellow alumna’s acute understanding of legal questions and work ethic.

“A few weeks into the job, I gave Leslie a project. It wasn’t very long, but it was pretty tricky,” Morris says. “Within a few hours, Leslie sent me a three-paragraph response that concisely, clearly and beautifully summed up her proposal. It was one of the best things I’d ever seen. I went straight to our general counsel and said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to keep her.’”

Morris got her wish. An in-house position opened in 2019 and Crudele joined Virginia529 full time. “I was thrilled to have another W&M person on staff,” Morris says.

Working with Morris, Crudele is focused on further expanding the coverage of 529 programs. An important part of this effort is the “Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act.” This bill would allow 529 funds in Virginia and across the nation to be applied toward recognized post-secondary credential programs offered by non-Title IV institutions, such as trade schools and nursing programs, as well as those offered by traditional colleges and universities.

“Expanding 529 programs’ reach to cover such educational costs has been an industry priority and a gap in our offerings for a while,” says Crudele. “This effort, which is very much Virginian-led with broad bipartisan support, is working to make that happen.”

Proposed federal legislation is pending in both the House of Representatives and Senate. The House of Representatives bill, H.R. 1477, was introduced by Reps. Rob Wittman and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. S. 722 is the companion bill in the Senate, which was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The House bill has bipartisan support from Virginia’s congressional delegation.

Morris and Crudele attribute much of Virginia529’s continued success to the organization’s focus on financial education, which has become “a core part of the mission,” says Morris.

“Saving for big life moments like college can be really intimidating,” says Crudele. “Through outreach and resource-creation, we spread the message that getting an education, having a comfortable retirement or being financially stable if you have a disability are all achievable goals. Our ultimate goal is to empower people.”

This work toward empowerment starts at an early age. Through a longstanding partnership with the nonprofit Junior Achievement, Virginia529 joins forces with local educators to bring their messaging directly to young students.

Other 529 programs look to Virginia for guidance. Morris and Crudele both hold key positions on the College Savings Plans Network (CSPN) a network of the National Association of State Treasurers. In these roles, they are able to share their knowledge for the benefit of the entire industry.

“Federal advocacy and outreach are a huge part of what we do,” says Crudele.

Reminiscing on her time at William & Mary Law School, Morris draws parallels between the university and Virginia529.

“I think Virginia529 complements William & Mary. Both have a big component of service and leadership,” she says. “At Virginia529, everything we do is driven by these values. It’s about excellence. It's about vision. It’s about empowering families to save and achieve their most fundamental financial goals.”