September 15, 2011
Colleges Help Students with Finances
With more college graduates piling up debts, an increasingly popular program on campus is trying to help them stay out of trouble.
More than 600 colleges are now enrolled in the National Endowment for Financial Education’s (NEFE) online program, so they can offer free assistance to four-year and community college students. CashCourse is a sort of private-label personal finance program: each academic institution puts its logo and school colors on NEFE’s online package of cash- and debt-management tools, tips, and workshops.
The University of California, the University of Texas, Purdue University, and State University of New York are among the schools posting NEFE’s materials to their websites or customizing financial programs to meet their students’ unique needs.
Leticia Gradington, program director for Kansas University’s program, said it’s not unusual for students to have $20,000 to $30,000 in college loans and credit card debts.
“You’ve got students every day who are worrying about how they’re going to pay their debt back,” she said. If students can learn just how expensive the debt is before they borrow, “They pay more attention to it.”
The average college loan balance of students who graduate with debt soared nearly 29 percent in five years, to $24,000 in 2009, according to the Project on Student Debt. But college students in various surveys say they feel poorly equipped to handle financial issues. One-third of freshmen report “very distracting and troublesome” financial problems, says Noel Levitz, a higher-education consultant.
Kansas University integrated CashCourse into a financial literacy program started last fall. Free food is an excellent device for luring students to financial workshops, so KU uses part of a $1,000 NEFE grant to buy pizzas and soft drinks. KU holds CashCourse workshops, which come with PowerPoints, worksheets, and other materials that assist students in keeping financial diaries, paying off debts, listing expenses, or budgeting.
Many colleges are creative about getting the word out to their students. Oklahoma State University has used tweets, written by NEFE, to drive students to its customized CashCourse website. The University of Michigan’s financial aid department held a scavenger hunt in which students found answers to financial questions on its CashCourse site. Web traffic soared during the hunt, which awarded the winner a $200 gift certificate to the campus computer store. Purdue gets student financial counselors to pass the word about CashCourse to classmates.
NEFE Builds Membership
Since introducing CashCourse in August 2007, the national non-profit based in Denver has built participation one college at a time. Amy Hartenstine, program director, networks at conferences held by student financial-aid administrators, the federal program for first-generation students with immigrant parents, and others.
NEFE’s Beck considered but discarded the idea of creating a standardized course for college use, rather than CashCourse’s customized workshops. A former dean at the University of Wisconsin, he knows how long it takes to insert a new course into the curriculum.
Students’ needs are too urgent to wait for that. “If NEFE had gone that route, I’d be retired before we got much done,” he said.