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Financial education for college students can also benefit families

Bridging the financial literacy gap in college can help with education and career planning

Sep 13, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

By Doug Chittenden

Financial literacy is a key driver of personal financial security and success, and it has implications for our country's economic strength, as well. Yet far too many Americans, including college students, lack the financial knowledge they need to thrive.

We know from the TIAA Institute's work with the George Washington University that there is a financial literacy gap among 18- to 29-year-olds. College is an optimal stage of life to receive financial education, as students are often taking on a range of financial responsibilities —they work, have expenses related to their education, and are considering how to manage any debt they will incur as a result.

Policymakers, employers, financial services providers and educators all play an important role in identifying and creating potential solutions. Financial education is important to the higher education institutions we serve. Advisers also can play an important role in the adoption of financial education programs, and some have created their own for their plan sponsor clients.

[Recommended video: Fighting financial illiteracy with personal economics lessons]

In an effort to learn about best practices for developing high-impact financial education programs, TIAA embarked on a three-year collaboration with the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and more than 30 leading universities. While the participating institutions developed a range of innovative approaches, some common suggestions emerged for financial education programs aimed at this demographic. The recommendations are:

• Know your audience — work to understand students' specific financial concerns.

• Enlist partners to develop engaging and relevant content.

• Identify and leverage existing programs and initiatives. For example, integrate financial education into existing orientation or professional development courses.

• Use multiple delivery systems; in-person, interactive activities and dialogue can engage students and help build community around student financial issues.

TIAA used these insights to create TIAA FinSights, a national financial education program for college students. It launched at Queens College of The City University of New York in fall 2018 with entering freshmen enrolled in its SEEK program, which aims to provide supplemental academic support, counseling and financial aid to qualified low-income high school graduates who might otherwise not attend college.

(More: Where advisers can begin to battle financial illiteracy)

The program tries to teach students vital skills to help them attain real-world success beyond college. We were interested in how TIAA FinSights could address the needs of minority and low-income students who face financial difficulties and disproportionate loan debt.

Queens College Interim President William Tramontano noted that many of these students are the first in their families to attend college, and the concepts and tools found in the FinSights program should help as these students pursue educational, social and economic advancement.

Financial education programs help college students make more informed decisions about their educational and career plans, and this knowledge carries over into other aspects of students' lives to help them better articulate to themselves and their families the reasons behind their decisions.

When TIAA sought program feedback from Queens College students, a theme in most of our conversations was a need to learn how to talk with their families about finances. In response, we were able to update the program with a specific module, Family Conversations about Money.

(More: Why is basic financial literacy so elusive?)

Queens College also hosted a workshop on financial literacy for parents, which utilized our materials and created a space for both students and parents to have access to the same educational materials.

Programs that work with the higher education community to improve financial literacy levels among college students can help put innovative ideas around financial education into action and hopefully make a difference in the lives of students, their families and ultimately, their communities.

Doug Chittenden is executive vice president of TIAA Financial Services.

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