College students need help with financial literacy

One reality has become clear in Paul Goebel’s 16 years as director of the Student Money Management Center at the University of North Texas: individuals have different levels of tolerance for debt.

One nontraditional student “was a quarter million dollars in debt—but she wasn’t losing sleep over it. I was losing sleep when I looked through the notes on her account, but when I met the woman, she had a great attitude,” he said. She recognized her mistakes but calmly vowed to get out of debt.

Another student—the same day—arrived and shared, through tears, that she might need to withdraw. “Her parents had given her a credit card for emergencies, and guess who made the choice to become the most popular person on her floor?” he explained. Handing her some tissues, he asked how bad the balance was. Bad, she said. “Five.” “Five thousand?” And she said, “No, that’s crazy! Five hundred!”

“What one person may think is unmanageable, another student doesn’t even think about,” said Goebel, whose center promotes lifelong learning of related financial concepts and practices and offers students small loans in emergency situations.

Students also have different emotions surrounding applying for assistance that must be repaid. Early this semester, for example, many students scheduled sessions to discuss unpaid fall accounts. When the suggestion of an Eagle Support System loan came up, said Goebel, some students were adamant about not wanting to consider that—even without other ideas for how to pay their overdue bill.

The latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse found 1,550 of the 2,000 undergraduate student respondents will have student loan debt after graduation. But one in five don’t know how much debt they’ll have, and the nearly half who do know the amount do not know what their approximate monthly payment will be.

Conducted Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, with support from Kaplan, the survey found the next most common debt types to be credit card debt (23 percent) and car loans (14 percent). Each of those is twice as likely to be identified as a current debt by students at public colleges compared to private institutions. About one in 10 over all have either a personal loan or a past-due college bill.

Ganesh M. Pandit, an associate professor of accounting at Adelphi University, sees the credit card debt as particularly concerning. Whether they’ve been overdoing it on fulfilling wants or, worse, meeting their basic needs with plastic, it’s “a sad situation, as that credit card debt will stay for a while,” said Pandit. He teaches a series of two-hour financial literacy workshops for students, faculty and staff, plus a 15-week academy with sessions dedicated to Adelphi students with autism.

Significant numbers of students are struggling with finances, the Student Voice survey reveals:

  • In terms of basic needs, one-quarter of students said they’ve experienced food insecurity during college and 17 percent have dealt with housing insecurity; two-thirds work at least part time, with nearly one in five working at least 30 hours per week.
  • Regarding the pandemic’s impact on college enrollment, four in 10 said it’s either very or somewhat true they were almost unable to either attend or remain in college because of COVID—with this group being nearly four times as likely as the full sample to have a current debt owed to their institution.
  • When asked how worried they would be about needing to drop out of college if a financial setback such as a large car-repair bill arose, 35 percent were very worried and an additional 29 percent were somewhat worried.

Here’s a full picture of what students report about their personal finances, related education opportunities and how they believe their colleges can help.

Financial Conversation and Knowledge Sources

At Texas Tech University, when walking through the hallways of the College of Human Sciences building where the School of Financial Planning holds classes, conversations about money are common. James Zugg, who earned his bachelor’s degree in personal financial planning in December 2021 and has since moved into the graduate student assistant role in the university’s Red to Black Peer Financial Coaching department, said one might overhear students trading stock purchase or performance stories.

Students across the university are talking about finances with each other in a more formal sense via Red to Black’s individual coaching sessions or presentations led by peer financial educators, explained Zugg, who has served as a student coach since 2019. The model allows students to learn about money matters through someone likely to have a similar financial situation (although coaches are all majoring in personal financial planning or a related program and have undergone special training).

More than half of Student Voice survey respondents have talked with friends about investing in the stock market. But even more popular topics for such conversations are budgeting, credit cards and student loans, and the top topic is the price of college (84 percent.) Community college respondents (250 of the full sample) are less likely than their four-year peers to be talking with friends about stock market investing, budgeting, credit cards and student loans. These students are also less likely to have student loans; two-thirds had them, compared to three-quarters of those surveyed from four-year institutions.

Pandit is happy to see budgeting and savings discussions taking place, especially during the pandemic, he said. “Young people have to learn the importance of properly allocating their income between savings and expenses.” He also likes that retirement came up, considering it’s so far away for most students. And regarding credit cards, he hopes discussion was about how to use them responsibly rather than how to acquire several or increase credit limits.

Generally, money is still a taboo subject, said Phil Schuman, executive director of financial wellness and education at Indiana University at Bloomington. “It’s very hard to combat that we’re not supposed to talk about money.” Schuman, whose office runs the national Higher Education Financial Education Wellness Alliance, which had 266 institutions participate in its 2021 summit, wonders how in-depth conversations about student loans are.

His program used to work intently on reducing the amount of loans taken out, “but we’re realizing the focus might need to be less on student debt and more on overcoming financial barriers,” he said. “There is a sweet spot—you don’t want students borrowing too much, and you don’t want them borrowing too little, because they may work too much, and that takes away the ability to focus on academics.”

Regarding investment chatter, Schuman said he sees it most in sessions with business school students, who are more fluent and seek assistance on building portfolios. But basics must come first. “We’re getting people to slow down and establish a solid financial baseline.”

Student Voice respondents were most likely to say they’d learned about money and finances from a parent or guardian (62 percent), with white students more often identifying a parent than students of color, and private college students doing so more often than public college students. Personal research, the second most common response, shows an active interest in learning about their finances, said Pandit.

About one in four learned about money through a high school class, yet only 11 percent have become knowledgeable through a for-credit or noncredit program in college.

One in five students identified a friend as having taught them, a finding that’s “a little scary” to Amy Glynn, who was a financial aid administrator for a decade before joining the financial aid software company CampusLogic, where she is currently vice president for student financial success.

“You have to wonder about the accuracy of the information,” she said. “Financial literacy is so personalized. I worry that a student will get the wrong information because their friend Sally got told, No, you are not eligible’ for work-study, a Pell Grant or any of a number of other programs. Her situation may be very different, and maybe they don’t see the small differences in the details that could lead them down a completely different path.”

Regarding high school financial literacy courses, the most recent research from the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain Colleges indicates that they are required in an estimated 10 states. Glynn would like to see these courses include financial aid literacy and, more specifically, finding a good-fit college. “We have very clear ways to identify a good academic fit for students,” she said. “What we don’t talk about is what schools are a good financial fit.” If addressed early, the topic could include “how to shop for a college education.” Unlike with purchasing a car or a house, she added, “there’s no clear price.”

What’s unclear to most college students is whether their institution offers a program or class on financial literacy. Sixty-seven percent of Student Voice respondents simply aren’t sure, with public college students more likely than their private college peers to be unsure. Those who know that their institution has a program reported most often that it was optional.

“We’ve seen growth in the number of institutions offering some sort of financial wellness program,” said Schuman. “But it’s still pretty low … I think it still hasn’t latched on quite yet in terms of higher-ups. It tends to be more of a grassroots effort.” Programming may live within the financial aid or student affairs office, or out of an academic school or department.

As far as building awareness for education opportunities, there’s no magic marketing formula. Schuman’s program has its own website and uses social media posts covering a variety of subjects, with the aim of making general information feel personal to individual Indiana University students and nudging them to take action. “The hope is that it prompts students to talk to you one-on-one about their situation,” he said.

At Texas Tech, many peer coaching session appointments are triggered by students applying for Raider Relief Funds. In the past, such sessions were required before emergency aid would be granted, but the Red to Black office got inundated with requests. “We’re completely booked up with coaching sessions, so they’ve changed the rules,” said Zugg. “Now it’s not a requirement to get the funds but is highly encouraged.”

Budget building is a common focus, with the majority of students willing to alter their habits, said Zugg. “A lot of the time they need emergency relief because they are not in control of their finances. You don’t ever want your money to control you.”

Students leave with homework: track all spending. “We live in a society now where we swipe or tap or hold up our phone to the payer, and it’s that instant thing. People aren’t realizing how much they’re spending,” he said. In a follow-up session, where a student might see, for example, $150 more than assumed was blown on eating out, Zugg will see “aha moments” that prompt behavior change.

Money Literacy Levels and Financial Worries

About four in 10 students surveyed rate their financial knowledge as either excellent (7 percent) or good (35 percent), while only 12 percent rate it as poor.

More likely to have financial intelligence confidence are men versus women, straight students versus LGBTQIA+ students, and Republicans versus both Democrats and Independents.

Pandit from Adelphi hoped students weren’t feeling overconfident. “A lot of students think they’ve mastered financial literacy, but their knowledge is basic,” he said, giving as examples those who know their credit score or the difference between needs and wants. During his workshops, he’ll quiz students on concepts such as ways to save on income tax. “One of the options is ‘not disclose my income to the government.’ A few students think that’s the correct answer,” he said.

Being involved with investing may equate with financial confidence for some students. Nearly three in 10 students have stock market investments, and 16 percent have dipped into cryptocurrency; 12 percent of these respondents rate their knowledge as excellent, and 47 percent as good.

A key piece of financial knowledge centers around the total cost of college. While 55 percent of respondents agree strongly (19 percent) or somewhat (36 percent) that their colleges are transparent about their total price, students are very likely to say various areas cost more than they anticipated. For example, about half say tuition, course materials, housing/living expenses and/or fees cost more. Only 11 percent say their total expenditures on college were about what they expected.

The disconnect may be due to students not anticipating the annual increase in various types of college charges, said Pandit. Or perhaps financial assistance had dropped off. “Many times, colleges offer significant financial aid and scholarships for the first year of attendance with no promise of continuing them in the same amount for subsequent years,” he pointed out.

Goebel from the University of North Texas finds it interesting that “institutions of every kind provide thorough and comprehensive information on the financial side,” but it doesn’t become real for students and families until the bill arrives. They assume “financial aid will cover it, but there’s been a growing gap in the past 10 years between expectations of how costs will be funded and reality,” he added.

When Glynn worked at a private liberal arts institution, at which staff felt good about price transparency efforts, she found that “sometimes it literally takes sitting down with a family and walking them through the cost.” Say the gap is $12,000 per year. The parent would nod in understanding, but it wasn’t until that got broken down into a per-semester or even per-month amount that the parent would become alarmed.

One Student Voice respondent who will graduate from a Vermont institution with significant loans commented, “I should’ve been advised on how to decide if the cost of college is worth it or not, and on how to decide how much I was willing to sign up for in debt.”

The survey reveals just how financially vulnerable students are and have been since March 2020. Four in 10 students say it’s either very or somewhat true that they were nearly unable to attend college or remain in college because of COVID. This group of respondents was almost four times as likely as the full sample to be overdue on a university account. Those more likely to respond very or somewhat true are students at community colleges or at public institutions, with responses about 20 percentage points higher than those of students at four-year or private colleges. In addition, Latinx and Black students are more likely to express that COVID nearly impacted college enrollment, with responses 20 and 12 percentage points higher, respectively, than white students’.

Being able to enroll or persist in college during COVID doesn’t mean an unanticipated situation won’t lead to dropout. Nearly two-thirds of students are either very worried (35 percent) or somewhat worried (29 percent) that a financial setback such as an unexpected car-repair bill or loss of employment would result in needing to leave college.

In pre-pandemic research from Trellis Company, which asked how much trouble students would have in getting $500 for an emergency, more than half would have difficulty with it. Demographic breakdowns in Trellis’s Student Financial Wellness Survey Results: Fall 2020 revealed that Black and Latinx students, as well as first-generation students, were especially likely to say they’d have trouble accessing $500. These three groups stood out in Student Voice data also, as most likely to be very worried about their ability to stay in college due to a financial setback.

“It’s not a vast amount of money that causes students to stop out,” said Goebel, adding that one of his Student Money Management Center’s primary services is loan-based emergency support, and last year students applying for it needed an average of $400 to $500.

“We have to instill the habit of saving for emergencies,” said Pandit. “Having to drop out of college due to a financial setback not only puts someone behind on their educational plan but can also have a demoralizing effect on them and affect their mental ability to get up and move forward again in their education.”

But for students, building an emergency fund of the suggested six months is “like climbing Mount Everest,” said Zugg. He encourages students to start out small, working up to $500—“a little nest egg for when your dog gets sick or you get a flat tire.”

One in four Student Voice respondents had experienced food insecurity, and nearly one in five had experienced housing insecurity during college.

Put the inability to meet basic needs alongside the inability to sustain financially in an emergency—especially during a time when more financial crisis assistance has been made available to students through colleges than ever before—and the near future looks highly concerning. “These students surveyed are in college at a time when the federal government has supplemented higher education with over $75 billion in education release funds, with $38 billion needing to go directly to students in the form of emergency grants and assistance,” said Glynn. “The money needs to be spent; it’s going away.”

Only 30 percent of survey respondents believe their college has adequate support in place for students facing a financial crisis. “The idea where institutions of higher ed need to do more at a time when that $38 billion is going to be drying up worries me even more for the future of students,” added Glynn.

Student Needs and Institutional Priorities

When asked what types of financial wellness supports they would like to see, or see more of, from their institutions, students selected services to help in navigating personal finances, more emergency aid funds and education on personal finance now and after graduation the most.

Nearly half of students want more partnerships with banks for student-friendly credit card terms and fees. “It’s ironic,” said Schuman. “There’s so much focus on debt students have, but we’re getting indications that students want to borrow more money. It’s being told to them through marketing, ‘Hey, you should build credit,’ but it’s a slippery slope.” Hearing students bragging about their credit scores, he will emphasize that scores are “an indication of borrowing health, not an indication of financial wealth.”

Questions Presidents Should Be Asking About Student Finances

  1. What’s the trend analysis on enrollment, and for those who aren’t coming to campus, why?
  2. How much in student loans did we disperse this academic year?
  3. What is the average student loan debt for our graduates?
  4. What does withdrawal-process data show about why students are leaving, and is the top reason financial?
  5. How can we lower the number of students leaving due to financial issues and challenges?
  6. What are we, as a campus community, doing to help students be successful in developing and strengthening financial skills they need today as students, but also what they need tomorrow?

Source: Paul Goebel, director of University of North Texas’ Student Money Management Center

Campus financial literacy experts—and hopefully all in higher ed—see the intrinsic value in educating students about money as a foundation for postgraduation life. “We have a responsibility to make sure we’re preparing people academically and financially to be successful,” said Glynn. “The two are really handcuffed together. But by preparing students to be successful in life, we’re also opening up the opportunity that they can give back to the institution.”

Goebel thinks of this as a ripple effect. “When [students become] successful alumni, they will have such a positive memory of how their institution did its best to help them be successful, and hopefully then it will be realized in giving back.”

A more near-term benefit to institutions educating students about finances surrounds the anticipated enrollment cliff. “The focus is going to have to be less on getting students to come in to our school and more on keeping the ones that we have,” said Schuman. “They need access to resources to overcome financial barriers that will impact their ability to continue.”

A financial wellness focus won’t produce data about how it “increased retention by X amount, as there are too many variables,” Schuman added. “But these conversations need to be part of retention improvement programs.”

Additional Student Voice financial wellness survey data, focused on student loans and interactions with campus financial aid offices, will be released next week.