Picture this: You’re a student at a flagship public university, and after class, you visit the career development office and complete a mock interview with a career advisor. Then, you pump some weight or take a light jog at the student recreation center for a well-needed sweat. To wrap up a productive day, you mingle at a school-sponsored social mixer and decompress with fellow students. And when finally crash on your bed, you see the university added cash to the mutual funds account they helped you put together as a reward for the great things you did today to set yourself up for future success.
This is how the University of Kentucky is gaming its students in a first-of-a-kind program, UK Invests, to develop healthier living habits and drive-up school persistence rates. After a beta test that attracted around 300 students to invest over $40,000, UK—in partnership with Fidelity—is set to roll out the full product this Fall semester.
Vice President of Student Success Kirsten Turner and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Eric Monday view student success as a ladder built by four vital steps: mental and physical well-being, academics, belonging and engagement and financial stability. UK Invests approaches this cycle not by its parts but as a holistic strategy that attracts students through financial incentives and pulls them in with everything else in between.
“This whole thing is about financial literacy but it’s also about the development of habits across those four areas and we want you to hardwire those while you’re here,” says Turner.
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While students have the opportunity to learn a pivotal facet of financial literacy by opening a personal investment account, UK understands how cash-strapped students are. The college is willing to financially support students with their investment journey under the condition that they participate in university activities that adhere to the student persistence ladder.
“Money is a really big incentive to our students,” says Turner. “How can we use that to motivate them to perform behaviors that we want to see them do?”
Turner first recognized how money can be such a potent catalyst for student change during the pandemic. The school gained a 93% vaccination rate without a mandate and of the “levers” used to achieve this was incentives, chief of them being money.
UK intends to fund this initiative through their philanthropic partners and a reallocation of current financial resources with limited positive outcomes, such as student “swag” for attending school events. Donors, according to Turner, are already buzzing with excitement asking how they can be further involved.
“So many of our students that we interact with are concerned that they can’t start investing because they don’t have enough money to start. Well, there are no fees in these accounts, and ultimately, it’s about the habits, not the amount,” says Monday. “The amount can change as they age, but the focus is to get them to understand how the financial decisions they make today can affect them tomorrow.”