Helping college students avoid money woes

High schools and parents often fail to teach basic financial literacy. But a student’s life during and after college can hinge on learning important planning skills.

Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP
Virginia Tech students walk across campus in the snow in Blacksburg Va., Dec. 11 2019.

College students like to think about the future, the satisfying careers and happy lives to come. But without good financial planning, these dreams can turn to dust. 

Students today confront a dizzying array of financial choices, and they are often woefully unprepared to make them. The result can be anxiety that affects their studies, or a debt load that may burden them for years.

As teachers of financial literacy, parents and public schools haven’t been getting the job done. That’s caused more and more colleges to decide that they must take responsibility for teaching it.

Only about 1 in 6 high school students are required to take at least a semester-long course in personal finances, according to a survey by Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit group. 

What’s more, many college students arrive on campus from households where the parent or parents themselves lack financial planning skills. In other cases, parents who micromanage their children’s college education may take charge of all financial decisions, leaving the student with little idea of how his or her education is being financed.

In January the Higher Education Financial Wellness Alliance officially comes into being, the result of a 2019 summit that brought together 340 attendees from 175 institutions. The group aims to help colleges find ways to remove barriers to students completing their degrees caused by poor financial planning and to promote lifelong financial skills.

A lot of data shows that college students are financially stressed, says Phil Schuman, director of financial literacy at Indiana University. One recent survey found nearly three-quarters of them said their financial situation was stressful, from “often” to “always.” 

In another 2018 survey, 65% of college students said they were worried about how they would pay for college. Half of them said they had trouble paying their rent, and 16% even had been homeless while in school.

The problems don’t end when they leave college. A 2019 report from the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission showed that some 43 million people owe $1.5 trillion in college debt, about $33,000 per person.

Colleges are taking a number of approaches to help. In recent years Indiana University has sent student borrowers a summary of where their student loan amounts stand, including how much they would owe at graduation and what their monthly loan payments would be. The program has contributed to student loan borrowing at the university dropping by $126.4 million, about 19%, between 2012 and 2018, Mr. Schuman says. 

Innovative teaching methods help keep students interested in the topic. One asks students to imagine their lives 10 years from now. They set up budgets, taking into account what kind of job they have and their income, and household expenses such as rent, utilities, and loan payments – even the saving they’ll set aside for their own children’s educations. 

Last year at Austin Community College in Texas, 3,800 students participated in a financial planning workshop. Students could earn $25 if they met with a financial coach and another $25 if they applied to Federal Student Aid from the U.S. Department of Education.

These and other such programs are badly needed. Students’ college educations will serve them better if they are accompanied by sound financial planning.

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