The Most Important College Freshman Class Isn’t Being Taught…Yet

In the first month of my freshman year of college, I had three main questions driving my life:

  1. What are my plans for the weekend?

  2. Are my roommates crazy?

  3. How am I going to decide what to major in?

Fast forward four years, and I have a diploma in hand grappling with an entirely different set of questions:

  1. How am I going to pay for rent?

  2. How am I going to start repaying my loans?

  3. How am I going to afford to keep myself alive?

So there’s an obvious gap between the priorities of a college freshman and the priorities of a college graduate, and understandably so. Living in a college bubble where real-world expenses aren’t yet a priority means that managing money isn’t a priority either. But there are plenty of moments during college when the right financial information and making good financial decisions will seriously impact a student’s financial future.

Student DebtIt’s especially true when it comes to borrowing money to pay for school expenses – and it’s what happened to me when I was in college. I wasn’t aware of (and frankly, didn’t care about) the amount of money I was borrowing to cover tuition, room and board and the other daily expenses of college life. And it’s part of the reason I graduated with $30,000 in debt (the majority of which was avoidable).

I needed a wake-up call in college; some basic level of education about managing my money; a class or a course where I was forced to acknowledge the financial decisions I was making, take a good hard look at the consequences, and change course.

This generation faces an unprecedented challenge: in 2011, U.S. student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark, overtaking total credit card debt for the first time in history; the average student debt load is over $25,000. All this means there’s a continuing trend of students borrowing for college and graduating with an obscene amount of debt.

It means that financial education isn’t just a good thing for the typical college student – it’s critical.

Buttonwood_ScreenshotThis is where the college can step in. While it’s not the job of a community college or a four-year university to monitor or intervene in a student’s spending and borrowing habits, it is a school’s job is to cultivate a cohort of students that successfully graduate and move on to fulfilling and stable careers.

So just how does a school begin teaching personal finance to college students? Here are a few ways that colleges and universities can integrate financial education into the college experience:

  1. Use a platform that’s easy to deliver and easy to track: It’s hard to come up with the resources to require every first-year student to take a basics life skills lecture (as much as they may need it). So the solution to providing financial education at scale is technology. Using a platform like EverFi’s Buttonwood – Personal Finance and Student Loan Management course let’s school administrators deploy financial education to a large number of students and track student progress, knowledge gains and positive financial behavioral change.
  2. Integrate into everyone’s student experience: Even if a first-year student doesn’t have loans now, it doesn’t mean she won’t in the future. An entire campus or cohort of students should receive financial education instruction, not just the groups of students that “need it.”
  3. Tie it to critical transition and financial moments: Research suggests that the “just-in-time” financial education is the most effective way to promote positive financial decisions. Simply put, the best time to teach financial decision-making skills is in the moment of a major financial decision. Tying financial education to critical moments like the beginning of freshman year or when the student receives student loan entrance and exit counseling helps the lessons stick and promotes thoughtful financial decision-making.

Even with a personal finance course on campus, college freshmen will still be focused on questions about how to make new friends and how to manage their class schedules in the first month of school. But with right kind of financial education early in the college experience, we can hopefully add another question to their list: How do I set myself up for success for the rest of my life?