Thomas W. Durso
Westchester Community College

Most colleges now have student financial literacy programs. But with funding from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and one-on-one sessions with financial coaches, Westchester Community College in New York takes the approach a step further—since officials there know that students’ fiscal concerns can harm academic performance.

“A lot of times financial problems hold a student back,” says Suzanne Matthews, director of the college’s Center for Financial and Economic Education. “When a student is undergoing financial stress, it tends to hit their academics first.”

Westchester’s Money Smart Forum uses workshops, training and coaching to encourage students to save money, reduce debt, improve credit scores and develop a personal budget.

While many such programs reach out to students only sporadically, the long view taken by Money Smart Forum developers is one of the program’s more innovative aspects, Matthews says.

“We are doing coaching on a sustained basis. We don’t just meet with students once or twice. We encourage them to commit to working with us for a semester or for a full academic year.”

So far, more than 250 students have been involved in the program. And their resulting financial progress has been promising. Last year participants saved a total of more than $54,000, reduced debt by an average of $660 each, and saw an average improvement in credit scores of 20 points.

And among the Money Smart Forum students who graduated last spring, about half earned academic honors. “The students who are in the program really get it,” Matthews says.

Technology has contributed to the college’s efforts. Using Change Machine, an online financial coaching platform developed by the national nonprofit Financial Clinic and adopted by Westchester Community College in 2015, the college can monitor students’ progress and help them create specific action plans.

Inside the program

  • Last year, about a third of Money Smart Forum participants were from the English as a second language program, while about two-thirds were from credit and degree-seeking programs.
  • Coaches are external financial professionals who have been trained to work with students.