Banking on literacy in higher ed

4 essential questions for working with an institutional banking partner to educate students on personal finance

As financial aid administrators know, there’s no shortage of free and fee-based programs designed to help students get a handle on personal finance and keep up loan payments when the time comes.

Increasingly, colleges are working with their institutional banking partners to develop engaging, accessible and trusted financial literacy content.

Banks have access to nationwide knowledge networks, and also provide the added advantage of hands-on money management experience through products such as checking and savings accounts.

There is data to support the need for such dual-purpose offerings.

SIDEBAR: Financial responsibility guidance for students

In their 2016 study of college student financial behavior, EverFi and Higher One found that students receiving financial education with real-life money management experience, such as maintaining a bank account, may be more likely to develop long-term healthy financial habits.

Before a higher ed institution partners with a bank to provide financial literacy programming, answering the following questions will determine how such a partnership should be structured in a way that is beneficial to all parties.

1. What are we looking to gain, and who are the experts?

To cover the varying facets of financial wellness that students will need in life, colleges are turning to their banking partners for help in developing content, training students and providing hands-on experience in financial management. In doing so, it’s important to clarify what the school is trying to offer and which entities can provide expertise.

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The University of Kentucky has worked closely with its banking partner, PNC, to provide financial literacy by “letting them be experts in the things they’re comfortable being experts in,” says Tiffany Jackson, director of student financial wellness.

For the UK MoneyCATS program, that meant being specific with the bank on what the university needed, rather than expecting that the financial institution would be willing to engage on any topic and at any time.

Banks, for example, can offer more hands-on experience beyond simple budgeting advice because they have the infrastructure in place to help students manage their actual cash flow.

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College staff are generally better suited to develop original content for some topics. That could involve working closely with students to help them understand their financial aid packages, or how their career and choice of major tie into earnings potential and future debt.

“A bank isn’t going to do that kind of counseling,” says Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

While banks can often leverage nationwide expertise, it’s important to be cautious about how any partnership is structured and about how much access the bank has to students.

“Banks have resources, but their motive is to establish brand loyalty,” says Kruger.

2. What is our bandwidth?

In a perfect world, higher ed institutions would be able to provide financial literacy programming without much input from entities such as for-profit banks, says Paul Schuman, Indiana University Bloomington’s director of financial literacy.

Yet some colleges and universities have resource issues that require such a partnership. “In that case, anything is better than nothing,” Schuman says.

When she first came to the University of Kentucky, Jackson was mostly alone in her effort to develop financial literacy initiatives. “It was just me, and we have 25,000 students,” she says.

Although there were some piecemeal efforts to help students with their finances, Jackson was working to centralize and bolster the offerings to include online, group and one-on-one interactions. She credits PNC for “really helping us get off the ground” even though, at the time, the bank was not yet the school’s official partner.

The University of Central Florida’s Centsible Knights financial literacy program has the bandwidth to offer group education and online programming that covers real-world financial topics such as saving, spending, investing and managing debt.

But to meet student needs, the university relies on offerings from its network of on-campus stakeholders, including its credit union. The partnership includes the credit union’s personal financial counseling sessions for students during National Financial Literacy Month every April, which the school doesn’t always have the bandwidth to provide.

3. What other resources can we leverage?

Bringing different voices with varying perspectives to the table can help strengthen the value of financial literacy offerings. “It is most beneficial not to operate in a vacuum,” says Karemah Manselle, associate director of the University of Central Florida’s Office of Student Financial Assistance.

“Our financial literacy network includes other stakeholders on campus along with the banking partner, [Fairwinds Credit Union], which really helps to propel our program.”

Colleges with robust financial literacy programming also frequently rely on their students as experts, both to provide peer education and to assist with topic and content development. The University of Kentucky, for example, allows student financial literacy coaches to take the lead on creating programming that is engaging and relevant.

Nonprofit and for-profit entities with financial literacy programs include the National Endowment for Financial Education, EverFi and iGrad. The federal government also provides resources through the Department of Education.

Campus communities also have the advantage of a vast network of faculty, staff, alumni and institutional partners they can look to for help developing and delivering financial literacy programming.

Kristin Bhaumik, associate director of financial wellness, advertising and eligibility units at the University of Michigan, says she “never thought to reach out to our banking partner, because I have always found enough support through other partners in the financial education community.”

4. How can we manage student perception?

When working with a banking partner, being deliberate in how information is delivered strengthens student perception and maintains trust in the content.

NASPA’s Kruger recommends detaching financial literacy offerings from the bank as much as possible to prevent students from viewing the information presented as a sales pitch or biased toward the bank’s interests. This may be achieved by rebranding the bank’s materials with the university’s logo.

Blake Marble, director of The Ohio State University’s Student Wellness Center, says the university and its banking partner, Huntington Bank, have carefully structured their relationship to remove a lot of the bank’s direct outreach to students.

“It’s not one that is thrown in front of students’ faces. A student going through our financial wellness program is not necessarily aware” that the banking partner had any involvement in content development, Marble says.

Other institutions have tried to avoid student perception of bias toward a particular bank by simply developing their own content—sometimes through initiatives delivered via multiple formats.

For example, Marquette University in Wisconsin “offers a wide array of financial literacy content in many forms to reach as many students and as many learning styles as possible,” says Dave Lawlor, executive vice president of operations.

The goal, he adds, is “creating essential lifelong habits and skills.” The program encompasses in-person and one-on-one interactions, and also utilizes its website and social media channels to share financial literacy messaging with students.

Schuman from Indiana has turned down financial literacy partnership offerings from banks to avoid the appearance of any bias. “There’s definitely information that I get a little uneasy about just because it seems to be presented in a way that benefits the banking institution the most,” Schuman says.

After assessing its own campus climate, the University of Kentucky took a somewhat different approach and is more upfront about its partnership.

Co-branded items are offered during student fairs, and the institution’s banking partner participates in face-to-face events with students on campus. The bank also provides funding for a peer coaching program, allowing student financial mentors to be paid for their work.

By carefully researching what students needed and who could deliver it best, university administrators were able to build a partnership that “is really organic and natural” and does not appear, from the student perspective, to be forced by the bank, Jackson says.

Ultimately, says Manselle of Central Florida, these efforts are about holistic wellness—helping young people to be financially well, now and in the future. “Providing them with the skills, resources and tools helps them to be successful here academically—and it helps them to be successful beyond our university doors.”   

Heather Kerrigan is an Ohio-based writer who has written extensively on financial aid.


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