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Gaining traction for your financial literacy program

Institutions are beginning to respond to the need for financial literacy programs, despite the fact that financial literacy doesn't fall under any one college department’s responsibility.
University Business, September 2013

Today’s students are facing higher costs, greater debt and continually changing financial aid policies, yet many don’t have a clear understanding of how their financial decisions can impact their education and their future. Institutions are beginning to respond to the need for financial literacy programs, but face a major hurdle gaining traction and commitment on campus, stemming from the fact that financial literacy does not naturally fall under any one college department’s responsibility. Instead it has many touch points of concern during a student’s college experience. This was clearly evidenced by the variety of reported departmental “homes” of the financial literacy educators in attendance at the recent inaugural Texas Association for Collegiate Financial Education Professionals (TACFEP) conference.

A great way to enhance the probability of starting and sustaining a financial literacy program is to cast a wide net of potential stakeholders and advocates. Starting a task force or advisory committee and inviting colleagues from places such as enrollment management, business offices, financial aid, counseling and wellness centers, student governments and associations, alumni, and faculty from business, economics, family and consumer sciences, or cooperative extension centers is a great way to build collaboration. At the University of North Dakota (which interestingly houses its financial literacy efforts under the umbrella of Health and Wellness Department), the advisory committee also includes representation from the controller’s office, residential life, library and social work. Each of these members brings valuable experience and viewpoints about the challenges students face and how best to meet their needs. “Having a librarian on the committee was a great addition,” says Laurie Betting, vice president for Health and Wellness. “Turns out librarians are very good at finding content resources and are very adept at grant writing which has helped us tremendously.”

Student participation also cannot be overvalued, and their involvement at every stage of program development is an imperative. Often the idea of starting a financial literacy effort actually emanates from student interest, as was the case at the University of Kansas where student leaders came back from a student government conference after learning about a new program started by one of their institution’s main rivals. There’s nothing like a little competition to get things rolling!

Using student focus groups or student surveys during the planning phase is particularly helpful in understanding more about your students’ major concerns and challenges, and what they are most interested in learning about. At Jefferson Community-Technical College, for example, the Financial Literacy Count$ program was spearheaded by its Single Family Support group. This group sponsored a financial literacy video contest in fall 2012 as a way for students to brainstorm and share their personal financial story. The videos are being used now to identify the key issues for students and next steps for program development and implementation.

Students are on top of the latest trends and know how best to communicate with and engage fellow students. They also are great assets in developing and recommending creative ways to market your programs and activities, and how to effectively utilize print materials, websites or social media such as Facebook, Twitter, or even Pinterest.

Since it’s all about helping students make better and smarter decisions that will keep them on the right track and prepare them for life after graduation, using students as peer mentors, tutors or ambassadors is not only smart, but is also a cost effective way to provide direct, one-on-one services to students. There are a myriad of successful models out there, but a few come to mind. Texas Tech's Red to Black Program offers free and confidential financial coaching, and provides intensive training for new recruits each fall. Boston College's $uccessful Start mentors provide information on banking, budgeting, savings and identity theft and have both undergraduate and graduate student mentors to accommodate their diverse student body. At Manhattan College peer mentors are trained and supervised by financial aid counselors who are trained and/or certified in personal financial management. Of course, before deciding whether or not a peer mentoring program is right for your campus, it’s a good idea to do some research and talk other schools about their experience with offering these services.

Providing students with more opportunities to hone their financial literacy skills will increase their chances of staying in school and achieving success, as well as prepare them to pay offer their student loans responsibly. To ensure your financial literacy efforts get off to the right start, be sure to collaborate with as many internal and external stakeholders as possible, include students in your planning and execution, and reach out to colleagues at other institutions for advice and counsel.

Mary Johnson is a financial literacy expert for Higher One.