Loan default rates and an expanding focus on student success have made strong student financial literacy efforts a higher ed norm. But as students and their parents continue to grapple with paying for school, money management lessons from colleges are becoming a family affair.
“Encouraging students and their families to communicate about financial responsibilities and expectations seems to be a more pressing issue than ever,” says Andrea Pellegrini, who heads up the Student Money Management Center at the University of Illinois. She notes that helping parents understand financial info not only promotes consumer transparency, but also fosters the long-term fiscal stability of students.
Here are 10 actions student affairs and financial aid offices can take to connect with and educate family members.
1. Communicate formally and informally.
Montclair State University in New Jersey splits freshman orientation sessions into separate tracks for students and parents, including financial info in the latter. “Families are informed about financial aid processes and are encouraged to communicate with their students to make better decisions,” says James Anderson, director of admissions.
Melanie M. Jobe, director of the Center for Student Academic Success at La Sierra University in Southern California, says it’s important to let parents ask questions outside of formal presentations. After orientation sessions, her staff chats with families at lunch tables.
“We ask parents if they have any questions, and they are more at ease in these informal situations,” Jobe says. Often the discussion will focus on finances, and the conversations help lessen parents’ anxiety.
2. Choose appropriate wording and language.
At Long Island University in New York, staff are working to make financial aid info more understandable to parents.
“As an industry we have so much legalese and protective language,” says Jackie Nealon, chief of staff and vice president of enrollment, campus life and communications. “The key is to keep it simple and straightforward. Avoid acronyms, or at least explain what they mean. The more time we take to clarify wording, the less likely families are to feel confused.”
Many parents may not speak English as their first language. At a minimum, publish info in Spanish as well as English, says Jeannette Smith, financial literacy specialist at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. Depending on the demographics, also provide access to staff who speak other languages.
“My students and their families speak Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Russian, Filipino and Farsi,” Smith explains. “We also have access to Braille translation services and sign language when needed.”
3. Avoid the cookie-cutter approach.
Dealing with a large number of incoming students can be a challenge, but college and university administrators should try to connect with families on an individual basis, says Larry Moeder, director of admissions and student financial assistance at Kansas State University.
“Always remember that no two family financial situations are the same,” says Moeder, also associate vice president for student life. “We must be ready to look at individual families as having unique interests and needs.”
One feature on Lehigh University’s updated financial aid website is an online scheduling tool. “We are constantly stressing the importance of meeting with a financial aid counselor, and have made it easier,” says Jennifer Mertz, director of the office of financial aid at the Pennsylvania school.
But don’t assume all parents can come to you. Westminster College in Salt Lake City goes the extra mile in supplementing on-campus meetings with parents. “We use a Skype service to review award letters for families out of state that may not be able to come on campus,” says Jenny Allen Ryan, director of financial aid.
If the student has younger siblings, staff members are also trained to offer advice on how the family may obtain aid for them in the future.
4. Create a parent webpage or e-letter.
Stevenson University in Maryland maintains a webpage for prospective parents covering financial challenges. “We provide helpful hints and thoughts for parents about what they are about to experience,” says Barbara L. Miller, director of financial aid. Among the topics are parent loans and other aid options, how to talk with students about paying for college, and helping students gain financial independence.
At the University of Illinois, parents are encouraged to sign up for a monthly e-newsletter published by the university’s Student Money Management Center. The newsletter focuses on ways parents can help students make financial decisions. Recent content has included links to webinars on fiscal topics and a financial literacy quiz.
5. Offer informational videos and interactive tools.
Santa Fe College in Florida invites parents of prospective and returning students to view videos dubbed Financial Aid TV. Obtained from digital publisher CareerAmerica, the videos cover topics such as tax credits, loan terminology and a basic overview of aid options. They’re easily accessed through a link on the college’s financial aid home page. “We’ve found that this is the most scalable way to answer many families’ questions,” says Kamia Mwango, acting director of financial aid.
As mandated federally, every college must provide a net price calculator on its financial aid website. But additional tools, such as the cost of attendance worksheet developed by Emory University in Atlanta, can supplement the basic calculator.
“The worksheet is very useful in helping families understand their costs,” says John B. Leach, director of the office of financial aid. Along with tuition and other standard costs, it provides estimates of out-of-pocket expenses and an a overview of when to expect billing statements.
6. Don’t give up on paper.
Web-based info, e-mail and social media have become communication staples, but printed material still has its place.
“Families, especially those of new freshmen, still benefit from paper and will more readily refer to the information if provided in both forms,” says Rachel Schmidt, director of financial aid at Cleveland State University. She suggests handing out publications each time there’s a visit day, orientation or alumni event.
7. Take an inclusive approach.
Information aimed at students can be targeted to families at the same time, says Anderson at Montclair State.
“Utilizing websites to make the same information offered to students also available to families can help create a more inclusive environment,” he says. “You will be much more effective meeting your goals if students can take good financial skills and habits they learn on campus, and practice them at home with their family—who is just as engaged.” Sending families informative postcards, pamphlets and other materials can be helpful if budgets allow, he says.
8. Hold extra parent info sessions.
The University of Illinois offers 60- to 90-minute sessions every fall, separate from orientation, to help families understand the billing system, FERPA requirements, payment procedures and the complexities of financing a college education.
“We wrap up the conversation by talking about the types of financial decisions that students will be making throughout their college career,” Pellegrini says. “We also cover resources that can help parents and families support building positive financial habits during this time of constant transition.”
9. Repeat the message.
Administrators shouldn’t assume any one message has reached its target. “Message and market early and often,” says Roberta Johnson, director of the office of student financial aid at Iowa State University. “Identify what topics resonate best with parents—financing a college education is one such topic—and make sure that parents receive notifications via multiple channels such as letters and e-mail.”
Too often, parents are not aware of deadlines or the repercussions of missing them. Cordy Love, director of new student programs at Southern Illinois University, advises sending repeat reminders to parents about application and payment deadlines, and other important dates.
“We had a family suffer thousands of dollars in late fees before the mother learned that they could be avoided by paying on time,” he recalls. “Making parents aware of deadlines may take extra efforts, but it needs to be done in their best interest.”
10. Use free resources, but build staff knowledge, too.
“If you don’t currently have financial literacy information available, look at some free resources,” says Santa Fe’s Mwango. He points to SALT and CashCourse as examples. “And if your bursar’s office disburses through a third party, see what financial literacy information they may be willing to provide or sponsor.”
Adding staff who are dedicated to financial literacy can be a long-term strategy. “These programs don’t belong solely with the financial aid office,” says Lehigh’s Mertz. “To implement them well, support is needed from senior administrators to create a financial literacy department.”
Mark Rowh is a Virginia-based writer.