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Financial Literacy 2.0

Sam Houston State University helps students develop money management skills by employing a combination of the latest technology and peer counseling.

By Jacqueline Brossman-Ashorn, Mary Johnson, and Kristy Vienne

*Students often came to the Bearkat OneCard Office at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), inquiring about the status of their financial aid refunds. But, the reasons cited for wanting their money were increasingly disconcerting to staff. More and more students were anxiously awaiting these funds not for books and other educational expenses—but for spending totally unrelated to their college education, including shopping, entertainment, and travel.

Not uncommon in today's economy, the students at our regional state college located in Huntsville, Texas, were having trouble managing their money, while accumulating too much credit card and student loan debt (see sidebar, "The Student Debt Epidemic" ). The office instinctively knew that basic money management skills and the ability to succeed in college went hand in hand, and that it was time for more immediate interventions. Yet in the mid-2000s we had no coordinated outreach effort or resources on campus to provide more financial literacy education to students.

The Student Debt Epidemic

Students at Sam Houston State University are not alone in their inability to manage their finances: The national statistics are sobering. The average score on a financial literacy test administered to college students by the Jump$tart Coalition in 2008 was only 60 percent. And the coalition's research indicates that almost 40 percent of students who drop out of college do so for financial reasons.

Students who do persist to graduation are leaving school with an average of more than $4,100 in credit card debt (Sallie Mae, 2009). In addition, the Project on Student Debt reports average student loan debt among students who borrow for their education is $24,000, up 38 percent since 2000 (The Project on Student Debt, October 2010).

This fall, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities called on colleges and universities to do more to promote financial literacy education, stating that "state colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to provide leadership on this critical topic by weaving financial education into the fabric of their campus."

With the debt levels of college students on the rise, the assistant vice president for student services conducted a qualitative research study, "A College Financial Management Center: What Do Students Think?" (Kristy Vienne and John R. Slate, International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, April–June 2009) to determine whether or not SHSU's students felt the need for a money management counseling center. The study attempted to learn whether the students would use the center's services, and if so, what services or information they would seek. (See sidebar, "Determining Priorities and Preferences." )

The students who participated in the study (a random stratified sample of diverse volunteers selected from a first year–level survey class) agreed that a center was needed and they would use it to get information on budgeting and other financial skills that would help them become less financially dependent on their parents. We asked them from whom they would want to receive counseling but not by what method (social media was still in its infancy at that time). The consensus was that they would want to talk to peer counselors first, to assess their respective situations, but then would prefer to work with a professional on ways to resolve their issues.

From this research and input from focus groups, administrators developed a proposal for funding the center, including a model describing the way we would develop and staff the center and what services we would offer. This information was submitted to the SHSU cabinet and later to the Texas State University System for subsequent support and approval.

After extensive research and planning, the SHSU Student Money Management Center (SMMC) opened its doors in October 2008. However, reaching and engaging today's Generation Y or digital natives can be challenging, not only because of student expectations for just-in-time information, but because technology continually changes. Today's college students have never known life without computers and take technology for granted. They want and expect 24/7 access and interactive interfaces and content. Getting students' attention and keeping them focused on their finances requires more innovative thinking and expanded use of technology tools. That is why at the SMMC we offer a combination of online resources and programs, social media, and face-to-face interactions.

Tech Tools Rule

We believe the money management center should have as many touch points as possible to connect with students, so we've focused on social media and online resources as an invaluable outlet to education beyond the university's walls. Such interaction extends to alumni, the Huntsville community, and other stakeholders

Although the center's administrators strive to develop a diversity of programs, it's often the SMMC's  peer counselors who lead the charge in developing new, interactive, and technologically integrated ideas and programs for the center. Known as Kat2Kat Peer Counselors (several programs are named after our Bearkats athletic teams), these students are SHSU upperclassmen trained to assist fellow students with a variety of financial topics. 

Here's an overview of some of the online tools that we've used and developed with Kat2Kat input.

Facebook. During its first two years as a new department on campus, the money management center needed to inform the university community about its purposes and services. Consequently, the center joined the SHSU Social Media Committee and created its first Facebook page. Students help develop the tip of the day and update the status on Facebook to reflect the pulse of the campus based on what might be happening at the time. Among other things, the page is used to provide students with helpful finance tips, information regarding upcoming events, general information regarding the center, and details on special events.

In December, for example, the center posted tips of the week pointed toward holiday shopping. Another Facebook status post in November asked, "Want to improve your credit score? Start with something as simple as paying your bills on time. When money is tight, make paying your bills a priority. This will help you avoid late fees and damaging your credit."

Facebook also helps promote interaction among peers. Students are encouraged to leave their own money-saving tips, names of useful finance applications for their smart phones, and links to their favorite financial Web sites. It also is used for contests. For example, the student who correctly answers the question of the day wins a prize.

SMMC Web site. Students regularly use the center's site to access a vast array of useful finance tools and resources. Since Web site visitors must trust the information they find, staff carefully vet materials and tools before posting anything to the site. Information regarding budgeting, building and maintaining good credit, student loan consolidation, financial aid basics, saving, investing, and the like are all included on the Web site. Podcasts have many uses, including walking a student through a budgeting process that will work for his or her finances.

The KatCents program is a comprehensive financial literacy course. It includes tracking and reporting capabilities to monitor student progress.

The KatCents program is a comprehensive financial literacy course. It includes tracking and reporting capabilities to monitor student progress.

The overall goal is to provide students the skills they need to be financially successful. They desire new information and continual updates, as seen by the Facebook and Twitter phenomena, and sites such as the SMMC site should be no exception. However, it's not enough to have a great Web site with comprehensive information. Perhaps even more important is to continually refresh it with updates, colorful photos and images, postings of upcoming events, and event follow-up. When administrators add new content, they must also update the main page, noting the updates so that students know to look for new content. A revised form that is three clicks into a Web page may never be seen if it's not promoted as a new addition.

Online financial literacy course. The center added an online program, KatCents, this year. The highly engaging, interactive online financial literacy course teaches students real-world financial concepts through learning modules and game-based approaches. The platform uses the latest media and Web technologies such as 3-D gaming, animations, simulations, videos, and Twitter-like applications. The flexible learning path will allow students to move quickly through such topics as saving and budgeting, credit cards and debt management, the Federal Reserve and banking, taxes and insurance, and consumer fraud protection.

The center's collaboration with various on-campus entities—for example, incorporating KatCents into the curricula of the university's TRIO programs (federally funded outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds) and the First-Year Experience program—expands KatCents' reach to these target populations. The TRIO's collaboration attracted a research grant from the Texas Association of College and University Student Personnel Administrators for SMCC's work with the TRIO programs on its campus (see sidebar, "Staying the Course" ).

Actively Assessing Success

The response from student participants to KatCents has been quite positive. Because the program is available 24/7, students can take the courses at their own pace. According to a math education major in his junior year, "KatCents has helped me look at money in a real-world sense. The course was fun and interactive, and I learned about topics that wouldn't have necessarily been covered elsewhere."

Quiz results of students who have completed the study modules indicate an increase in knowledge of personal finance topics. Students who score well on quiz results that compare precourse and postcourse knowledge are awarded a certificate of completion.

The KatCents program evaluations provide quantitative reporting, allowing administrators to track student progress, as well as capture other valuable research data about students. For example, site administrators can review student grades on tests given before and after training, break down data by various demographics, and review other results that help point the way to new topics that need to be covered in outreach programming.

StudentVoice is another way to conduct assessments. This online service includes useful measurement tools. For example, students participate in short anonymous surveys to indicate their level of satisfaction with the center, rate their overall experience with services and staff, and indicate what they learned through participation with the center or one of its events. This has proven to be a useful and effective way for us to measure student satisfaction and learning.

After the response deadline, we generate reports that we use as a basis for program revisions. We are constantly modifying programs or speakers based on survey responses. For instance, we added new events to our annual Financial Literacy Week, including the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Students had asked for more information and assistance in handling their tax returns, and incorporating this topic into Financial Literacy Week seemed a good way to achieve response to that input. 

In real-life scenarios in the interactive game of EverLife, students make choices about budgeting and spending their money--and they earn points based on their behaviors.

In real-life scenarios in the interactive game of EverLife, students make choices about budgeting and spending their money--and they earn points based on their behaviors.

Focused on Filling a Need

Since its launch, SMMC has served more than 6,000 students through a wide variety of outreach programs and counseling services in the form of e-learning modules, webinars and podcasts, seminars, workshops, special events, collaborative classroom presentations, campus television segments, and one-on-one professional and peer counseling. Topics run the gamut of personal finance issues, and include among other things budgeting, good versus bad credit, understanding credit scores and credit reports, identity theft protection and cyber security, savings and investing, debt management, and financial aid. The center had also outgrown its small start-up location, and within a year of operations, was relocated to a new, larger location.

Staying the Course

The Federal TRIO Programs have a requirement for financial literacy in its funding stipulations. As part of this requirement, all TRIO project students must participate in a financial literacy education program during the course of the year.

The Sam Houston State University Money Management Center is using KatCents with its campus's TRIO programs to educate students on financial literacy matters, while at the same time measuring the program's effectiveness in raising financial literacy levels of its participants over the course of a semester. Results from this study will be available in spring 2011.

However, the center and the TRIO principal investigators hope also to use the future longitudinal studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of KatCents and its impact on financial education understanding.

In the more than two years since its opening, SMMC has continued to see a constant and rapid increase of student usage of its services. And while the latest technological tools have freed up staff time to focus on the highest-priority student issues, overwhelming demand has led to added office space, staff, and hours of availability for students. We have been quite conservative with our funding and tried to work in collaboration with as many other campus departments and external agencies as possible to bring high-quality services within our budget.

However, increased demand in presentation and counseling may require additional staffing. Therefore, we realize that we'll need to use additional funds from the dedicated fee that operates the center, as necessitated by student demand. The expansion also is a strong indication that, while social media and other engaging technologies are extremely beneficial, wide-reaching, and cost-effective, students also need face-to-face interactions. 

The center's leadership is looking into developing and conducting a longitudinal study to measure the overall effectiveness of the program. Our goal is to see whether an increase in retention rates and a decrease in student loan default rates emerge as a result of our financial literacy efforts.

In addition, the center is addressing the needs of a growing population of distance learning students. The university boasts 13 different online degree programs, 351 online classes, and approximately 3,200 distance learning students, so it is important that we develop programs and services that can be accessed anywhere, anytime.

Our experience has made it clear that today's students want to be part of the learning process, rather than simply receiving lectures. Therefore, we continue to be creative in our information delivery. Recently added programs include KashCab and Financial Jeopardy, both of which will be showcased at our upcoming annual Financial Literacy Week, February 21–25. We sometimes even have on campus a professional comedian who specializes in financial management topics and talks to students about saving versus spending.

We anticipate a bright future for the Student Money Management Center and are proud of its many accomplishments in its short existence. And while colleges and universities may always be a step behind their younger students in terms of technology adoption, SMMC is demonstrating that observing, listening, and being willing to change are approaches that are making a difference. In the words of a recent SHSU graduate in mass communication about just one element of our money management efforts: "The KatCents program offered by the Student Money Management Center represents a fresh perspective on financial education. The engaging material and distinct format made learning rewarding and fun. I gained a real sense of accomplishment in completing the course. It is impossible to use this program and not learn something new."

JACQUELINE BROSSMAN-ASHORN is assistant director, Bearkat OneCard Services and Student Money Management Center, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas; MARY JOHNSON is manager of financial literacy and consumer advocacy at Higher One, New Haven, Connecticut; and KRISTY VIENNE is assistant vice president for student services, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.

Determining Priorities and Preferences

The research study "A College Financial Management Center: What Do Students Think?" set out to identify the ways students wanted to learn about their finances. Specifically, we wanted to know which kinds of programs and support students preferred Sam Houston State University (SHSU) to provide to help with budgeting and debt management. We posed the following interview questions to study participants:

  • Should we have a money management center on the SHSU campus? Explain your response.
  • What are the perceived benefits of having a money management center on the SHSU campus?
  • How would you benefit from access to a money management center on the SHSU campus?
  • What services would you want to see available at a money management center on campus?
  • What are the perceived benefits of having peer counseling available at the money management center on campus?
  • What are the perceived benefits of having full-time professional staff member counseling available at the money management center on campus? Have you participated in formal money management training before? If so where? How did you participate in the training? What encouraged you to decide to participate?
  • How will exposure to financial counseling or money management training on campus affect your professional future?
  • How will exposure to financial counseling or money management training affect your personal future?
  • On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating the least importance and 5 indicating the greatest importance, how important do you feel such a center would be to the students on your campus? Please explain why you assigned this number.
  • If the implementation of a dedicated fee were necessary to fund such a center on campus, how would this affect your support?
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