Southeast Financial Literacy Project Teaches Financial Responsibility

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

Jan. 20, 2010 – It’s no secret that financing a college education is a huge undertaking for students and parents alike. But what many students don’t realize is the financial decisions they make during college can affect the rest of their lives. Southeast Missouri State University’s Financial Literacy Project is trying to change that by helping students gain control of their finances.

The Financial Literacy Project introduces Southeast students to educational topics such as budgeting, credit, spending habits and student loan management. It also emphasizes the importance of academic success to financial success, according to Dr. Debbie Below, assistant vice president for Enrollment Management and director of Admissions at Southeast.

“Financing a college education can be an overwhelming responsibility,” Below said. “This may be the first time the student has had to make multiple financial decisions, and they are suddenly faced with decisions like when and how much to borrow, the consequences of missing a payment deadline, balancing outside bills with college costs, and budgeting future expenses, both planned and unplanned. The Financial Literacy Project developed out of a need to make students more aware of the financial decisions they will face and to give them resources and helpful advice to make sound financial decisions,” she said.

The program is a multi-faceted effort between several departments across campus, including Admissions; Educational Access Programs; Learning Assistance Programs and Disability Support Services; First Year Experience; Campus Life and Event Services; Career Linkages; and Student Financial Services. These offices have joined forces to create a Personal Financial Responsibility Committee to help students and their parents address these challenges with a variety of methods, including financial seminars and workshops, one-on-one financial counseling and numerous Web resources. 

The University received a $25,000 default prevention grant from the Missouri Department of Higher Education to help these efforts by funding two graduate assistantships. One graduate assistant, hired in January 2009, manages the multiple components of the Financial Literacy Project, including meeting with students across campus and promoting a new resource-filled Web site, http://www.semo.edu/money. The University’s My Southeast Financial Responsibility Channel offers much of the same information through the student portal, and also includes access to a free online version of the book Zero Debt by Lynette Khalfani-Cox.

The Web site has a wealth of information for students, according to Bryce Kristal, the graduate assistant who manages the program. Topics include everything from learning how to manage credit cards and stay out of debt to “super saving tips,” financial calculators, tools for managing student loans, and information on low or no-cost services and activities offered on campus.

Beginning in the fall 2009 semester, Kristal began holding seminars for student organizations and speaking to classes across campus, as well as at the regional campuses, to educate students about financial literacy and the resources available to them through the Financial Literacy Project.

“Each presentation is based on the resources and information we provide on the Web site,” Kristal said. “I talk to them about how to make the most of their education by taking advantage of everything the University offers, and emphasize how to graduate without ‘breaking the bank.’”

Information Kristal includes in her talks includes practical, common sense tips like cooking with friends instead of going out and asking if restaurants offer student discounts, to more substantial money saving tips like not dropping classes after the refund point, and staying in contact with their academic advisor to stay on the path to graduate on-time.

The Financial Literacy Project also tackles the bigger issues students face – credit card and student loan debt.

 “It’s important for students to know what they’re truly getting into with credit cards,” Kristal said. “Some students think they need a lot of credit cards to build credit, and many already have a few thousand charged on credit cards.”

More needs to be done to help students understand the terms of their student loans as well, Kristal said.

“So many students don’t know the details of their loans – who they’re borrowing from, how much they’re borrowing, how long they have to pay it back, or the interest rate,” she said.  “We teach them to prepare now so that when the time comes, they are able to pay it back. We help them understand the facts, including what types of salaries they will need to make after graduation to start paying these back.”

According to the Web site www.decisionpartners.org, starting salaries have not kept up with increasing student debt, and the average debt load of recent graduates has increased more than 300 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1991. As debt loads increase, some graduates are being forced to reconsider major life decisions such as buying a home, marriage and having children, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

As more students are educated through programs that are being put into place across campus, the Personal Financial Responsibility Committee hopes to turn these statistics around for Southeast students. 

“The program is outstanding,” said Dr. Carol Morrow, professor of anthropology, who invited committee representatives to talk with her students. “Students are worried sick about debt, finances and the future. Most work and still need to take out loans. So much of this is new and complex to them, and they need information. I’m proud we are providing it to them,” Morrow said.

Southeast sophomore C.J. Huddleston, an animal science major from Portageville, Mo., appreciates the knowledge he gained through the presentation and the Web site.

“I found the Web site very easy to use and it was easy to find the information I needed,” Huddleston said. “I like the simple tips to save money and the financial advice about re-paying student debts.”

In addition to making students aware of the particulars and helping them avoid potential pitfalls, the program also offers help to those who are already struggling financially.

Students have the option of meeting with a financial advisor in Student Financial Services who can help them develop a budget and get back on track, and staff members are partnering with Kristal on student presentations as well.

Southeast’s Academic Support Center staff also works in conjunction with Student Financial Services to offer financial counseling services to students on financial probation. The second graduate assistantship funded by the Missouri Department of Higher Education grant made it possible to expand these services, which now help more than 200 students. The “College Success Plan” helps students on financial probation identify the cause, and then identify solutions to the problem, according to Melanie Thompson, director of Learning Assistance Programs and Disability Support Services.

“Our staff works individually with each student,” Thompson said. “Some students only need one meeting; others need additional help, like finding ways to balance work and school or improve study skills or other skill sets.

“We’ve had a good response to the service,” she said. “Students have appreciated the additional avenues of support offered by multiple offices.”

The Personal Financial Responsibility Committee will continue its efforts to educate students on financial literacy with a series of college success and financial responsibility seminars on campus this spring, followed by additional workshops in the fall, according to Trent Ball, associate dean of students and director of Southeast’s Academic Support Center. Topics will include financial aid, budgeting, financial responsibility, saving and credit.

The Financial Literacy Program incorporates a number of other resources and activities as well, such as partnerships with the Cash Course and Decision Partners Web sites, which offer students even more financial management resources; observing National Financial Literacy Month in April with the annual “Money Project,” which challenges residence hall students to show what they know about money and financial responsibility; and blanketing residence halls and academic buildings with information on financial literacy.

The topic of financial literacy also has been incorporated into existing University programs, including the “Countdown to Commencement” program for students with more than 90 hours under their belt, to reach students in every season of their college career.

The www.semo.edu/money Web site will be officially launched this spring as well, although hits are steadily growing as more students learn about it through Kristal’s classroom visits and seminars.

The Financial Literacy Project isn’t just reserved for students already in college, according to Kristal. The Southeast admissions staff, as well as Kristal, start counseling students about the challenges of financial responsibility while they are still in high school.

“I’ve done FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Workshops with students to help them understand that financial aid paperwork is not as complicated as it looks, and educated students about preparing financially for college and understanding and gaining more financial responsibility,” Kristal said. “I also try to engage the students with interactive learning. We play a ‘Jeopardy’ game that helps them relate how unexpected expenses, like speeding tickets or car problems, can affect their finances.”

“The presentations we give at high schools are not specific to one university,” Below added. “The program emphasizes ways students and families can make the best financial decisions when choosing a college. Many families discover the cost of college is much more than they expected. In these programs, we’re up-front with families about the cost, tell them to ask detailed questions, and discuss many of the particulars they don’t always understand.

“There is a common saying in the financial literacy realm – ‘Live like a student while in college, or live like one the rest of your life,’” Below said. “Through the financial literacy programming, students are learning to make good everyday financial decisions. When a student uses good judgment in choosing how much to spend on food, entertainment, recreation, clothing and transportation, these can add up to a better post-college lifestyle. Conversely, when a student isn’t willing to sacrifice certain discretionary costs, they can set themselves up for a lifetime of debt.”