Starting a Financial Literacy Program on a College Campus

Dean Obenauer, MPA, AFC

There is a lot of buzz about financial literacy these days.   The concept is not new, but perhaps the focus is.  With the signing of Executive Order 13455, the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy was created.  The Executive Order established that “it is the policy of the federal government to encourage financial literacy among the American people.”   The report found at  stated that “while the financial crisis has many causes, it is undeniable that financial illiteracy was one of the causes.”    Since then, a plethora of new committees, commissions, agencies and discussions have taken place, which is good, but we all know that we need to do more to put the wheels in motion to help people manage their money.  For young people, a great place for financial education to take place is around the kitchen table, but kitchen table talk may not happen very often, if at all.  Is there room to squeeze  more on to the overflowing plate of primary and secondary education? To date, only 4 states require financial literacy at the K-12 level.  How can college campuses help prepare graduates to better handle their finances when they enter the real world? 

Creighton University, a Jesuit institution of 7,000 undergraduate and graduate/professional students, took the recent financial crisis seriously.   Like many institutions of higher education facing budgetary issues, the university was forced to tighten up its own belt.  However, the board saw fit to create a new position in the financial aid office to help tackle financial literacy.  Given tuition costs and student loan indebtedness, Creighton believed it was a priority to provide better customer service, resources, and tools to help students build skills and behaviors to successfully manage their money.

The new position is full-time as of July 1, 2010, with 60% dedicated to financial literacy efforts and the remaining time spent with other financial aid office duties.  The immediate challenge was to get started on a brand new program from ground zero.  The first step was to promote awareness and availability of this new resource on campus by meeting with as many departments as possible, such as Residence Life, Deans of various schools, Admissions, Career Center, Student Support Services, Activities, and Greek Life.  The next step was to decide what financial information students should know more about.   My approach was to start with money basics:  budgeting, credit/debit card use, credit history/score, identity theft and student loan repayment options.  Not all students need a refresher on each topic, but departments were in agreement with this approach while agreeing to keep me informed of issues and concerns that they were hearing about.    Departments began to refer students to me immediately.  For example, during my second week on the job, a first year medical student said “I need you to look at my budget to make sure I am spending my money ok.”  It is not my job to tell students how to spend their money or judge what they spend their money on, but to help them identify where their money goes and present solutions or alternatives.   I provided this student with a budget worksheet to help them identify income, savings and resources.  Next, the student listed expenses and then calculated them for the school year.   By writing it all down, they had a much clearer picture of the financial landscape, taking into account spending habits and making sure they set up an emergency savings account.  By taking a little time to connect the dots, this student got it.  I was impressed that they ended up with a very frugal budget.  In fact, we cancelled part of the student loan package because it wasn’t needed.  In every budget discussion I have with students, I always tell them to “Take time to do the math.”

The next step was to develop a web page with the goal to provide more information for students to access on their own timeframe.   While researching other college’s web sites, I found a variety of styles.  Some schools simply stated “for more information on budgeting, click here.”  Other schools had massive amounts of information that took a lot of time to work through.  Ideally, students want to know  everything they need to know in 3 bullets or less, so I decided to keep things simple.  Although I ended up with a few more bullets, I kept them brief.    For example, when talking about money basics, I list:

  • A spending plan.  The word “budget” does not have to be a dirty word!  It may be easier to manage your money when you have a plan.
  • Why a good credit score is just as important as your academic gpa.  Think of your credit score as your financial gpa, the higher your score the better.

By clicking on the underlined words in the bulleted line, students could read more detailed information about the particular topic.  For example, with the spending plan link, students can access and print off a budget worksheet or save it to their hard drive.  Other budgeting tips and software links are also provided. Several links of additional financial literacy resources are provided, with a brief description of the topic, quizzes, games, videos, and current money management articles.   Our Public Relations Department agreed to cover the cost of a 3 minute YouTube Video called “Get your bucks in a row” to encourage students to cue into the site. 

I continued to keep departments updated on progress, including the development of a small postcard called “Money Matters.”  The postcard promotes the importance of good financial habits (in a bulleted format), such as investing in your future through proper management of student loans; developing a spending plan that works for you; learning about responsible use of credit and debit cards, building a good credit history , and protecting  personal information.  The postcard promotes the webpage and the availability of individual financial counseling or group meetings.   It is part of the Admissions and Financial Aid Office mailings and is distributed throughout various locations on campus. 

Once classes started in the fall, I was contacted by the school newspaper.  While meeting with the assistant editor, I explained that I wasn’t wild about the word “literacy” because to some, it implies “illiteracy.”   I prefer to think of it as financial wellness, fitness, or health.  Like all good reporters, I was not allowed to see the copy in advance, but I was very impressed with the write-up and especially the title, “Avoiding the Financial Flu.”  The school newspaper, along with announcements of upcoming seminars on student activities listservs, has helped to promote this new resource. 

Through departmental meetings and word of mouth, I began receiving requests to meet with groups.  Most groups did not have a specific topic in mind, but wanted to know more about financial matters that they should be thinking about.  When I suggested a summary of the basics, they thought that was a good place to start.  Since September, I have conducted 20 formal presentations to a variety of groups, such as new freshmen during Welcome Week activities, senior marketing students at a local high school, resident hall assistant training, the 3rd year pharmacy class, staff wellness council, a sorority (which did not meet until 9:00 pm, but I will go when then need me), and Admitted Student Days for new students and their parents.    Again, I focused on the basics, with the goal of getting students to think about how they spend their money and to prepare for managing their money while in school and after graduation.

It is not mandatory that students see me nor am I part of the freshman year experience program (I am still working on that).   I am here for students who would like assistance and for class/group advisors who want their students to know more about financial matters.  Moving forward, I plan to have a student advisory group and peer advisors, enhance the website, develop a monthly seminar schedule with a theme, such as “Money Matters Mondays,” continue to research topics and trends, and continue to meet with departments to address needs and concerns.  I appreciate the flexibility to develop a worthwhile program and understand that it is truly a work in progress. 

There are many different models to approach financial literacy on a college campus ranging from hiring new staff, reassigning duties of current staff within or outside of the financial aid office, using financial literacy consultants, and providing online education.   The obvious implication is budgetary.   I realize that many college financial aid offices are short staffed while trying to handle an ever increasing work load.  There is no question that financial literacy is needed, but it may simply be a matter of finding the resources to provide it.   Financial literacy on college campuses is not mandated by law…….yet.  Various federal recommendations state that colleges “should” provide financial education as part of the total educational process.  Who knows, the word “should” may change to “will” and become regulation.  Proactively, it is important to think about how a college campus can better provide excellent service to students to help them successfully manage their money while in school so that they are prepared to successfully enter the workforce with good financial skills.    I think alumni with good financial skills will be happy alumni, and we all want happy alumni!

Dean Obenauer , MPA, AFC, is the Assistant Director of Financial Aid for Financial Literacy at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.  More information can be found on the “Financial Literacy Info” tab at or he can be reached at .


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