Student loan debt exceeds a staggering $1.5 trillion among 42 million people. Many of the students in our Christian higher education schools are part of that statistic. When our students lack financial literacy, they suffer, but so does our school.
While we are in the business of preparing students to be successful in the workforce, it is equally as important to teach our students how to make wise financial choices about funding their education that will benefit their future instead of burden it. After all, the financial decisions our students make throughout their academic career can dictate the lifestyle they can afford after graduation and even into retirement.
So, how do we give our students the tools to succeed in and out of the classroom? Below are some ideas of how financial aid counselors, administrators, and educators can provide personalized financial education to students:
1. Tailor your service to the knowledge level of the student.
Take the time to get to know your students and their families by understanding their needs; specifically, find out how much they know about the higher education industry. When I met with a student, I took the time to learn if they were entering college for the first time or had a history of postsecondary education enrollment. Knowing such details allowed me to tailor my services to them at a level of understanding they could easily grasp. This included, perhaps, breaking down financial aid terminology and/or policies and procedures into the simplest form. Let’s face it, terms such as Sub, Unsub, Master Promissory Note (MPN), and Entrance Counseling are industry lingo that a high school grad would not be familiar with but a graduate student probably would.
2. Interpret Financial Aid Information for Your Student.
For a student to fully understand and make an informed choice about the depth of the financial obligations they are about to incur, we need to share with them every relevant aspect of financial aid. Explaining the financial aid process in its simplest form has always been my favorite part of any conversation because this is where I knew that a real impact can be made.
For instance, I gave students and parents mini lessons on the many financial aid options: grants and scholarships (money that does not have to be paid back); loans (borrowed money that must be paid back with interest); work-study (aid earned through a job); etc. I explained each category in detail with a special focus on borrowing with a subsidized loan vs. an unsubsidized loan. I also taught them how to read and understand the financial aid offer letter they would be receiving once their financial aid package was processed, giving them more confidence to make an informed decision.
3. Teach students how to build a financial plan that benefits their future.
Every student should know how to create a financial plan. Most importantly, they should know how to understand and execute that plan. With that understanding, they can make informed decisions about major financial choices throughout their life. This would include deciding on which types of financial aid to receive, what terms of a mortgage to take when they buy a house, and which types of retirement investments to choose. To make wise decisions in these areas that benefit their future, students need to learn the basics of budgeting in the early years of their academic career by taking a class, a mini-budget seminar, or one-on-one in the Financial Aid office. This should include real-world examples, starting with the basics: For example, calculate the cost of their education minus the estimated financial aid at their institution. Explain how much cheaper it is to graduate on time than extending or retaking courses over several months or years. Add in buying a home and planning for retirement, giving them a long-term view of their financial life, something few teenagers have ever stopped to think about. However, responsible educators and administrators have an obligation to help students think about it.
While this might appear to be a lot of information to go over with students, it certainly is not something that must be discussed in one meeting. In fact, it should be discussed in several meetings over time. Financial Aid Administrators should enhance the frequency of their communications with students by implementing various outreach campaigns to the student community. Increasing the level of communication with students and incorporating at least one of the ideas presented above, gives educators and administrators the privilege of providing a brighter future for students rather than a darkened one created by unwise financial obligations that could burden them for decades.
 U.S. Department of Education, “Federal Student Loan Portfolio Summary”, 2019 Q4, https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/data-center/student/portfolio