Conference Wrapup: Financial Literacy and SMART Grants

At financial aid directors' meeting, sessions explore best practices on student financial literacy and assess 2 new federal aid programs.

July 12, 2007

It’s hard enough for students and their parents to learn about their financial aid options before applying to college and navigate the intimidating web of public and private programs available to them. But once students start accumulating debt -- and evidence shows it’s a staggering and growing amount -- a working knowledge of how to keep and plan one’s finances becomes ever more important.

Solving the debt problem probably requires solving the acknowledged financial literacy problem in the United States, and that’s where a number of self-motivated financial aid administrators have started working toward a solution. The answer, they’ve found, can come in the classroom, and an array of approaches to on-campus financial literacy programs -- some that work, and some that don’t -- was discussed at a pair of sessions at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators' annual conference on Tuesday.

More than a few financial aid administrators would probably like to see their institutions create a mandatory literacy requirement. Short of that, panelists recounted a number of creative attempts to reach out to students, and ways to adapt to the particular attributes of a variety of institutions.

At Suffolk University Law School, for example, Kristi Jovell, the director of financial aid, helped create what is now known as “Get $mart” -- a series of collaborative, interactive presentations intended to educate students about their finances (and a registered trademark; an audience member claimed dibs on “Get $marter”).

In its original incarnation in 2004-5, the program offered seven different sessions on topics such as financial planning and understanding credit. To Jovell’s surprise, however, the least popular was one she thought would be a sure-fire hit: trivia. “And then actually I thought, this might be a good thing. They’re not coming to get the food, to get the prizes.… They’re busy law students,” she said.

Food and prizes were certainly a central part of several of the sampled programs’ approaches. At Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, a trial-and-error development process resulted in a “seduce the student” approach, with iPod shuffle giveaways, rented furniture and “golden tickets” offering prizes.

The location for the program was a popular campus area near a coffee shop, explained Carly Eichhorst, a financial aid counselor at the college, and the atmosphere was designed to be “kind of a hipster, punk rock thing,” she said.

Nevertheless, the programs that succeeded learned from often lackluster first years -- at Suffolk, organizers added multimedia resources and a logo, while Augsburg ditched the PowerPoint and made sessions more participatory, for example -- and often have achieved observable results.

Susan Gross, the senior director of admissions and financial aid at New York Law School, a private urban institution not affiliated with a university, said her pilot program yielded improved financial literacy as determined by pre- and post-testing, as well as a greater willingness from students to follow “best practices” such as checking their credit scores or purchasing paper shredders. Suffolk, meanwhile, found that its financial aid office was used more often after students took the literacy course.

But the increasing scrutiny over perceived conflicts of interest between universities and lenders might lead to some changes in how some financial literacy programs are organized. Jovell, for one, said that her office may have to stop allowing lenders to offer up the prizes given out to some participants in part to encourage attendance. (There was no marketing involved, she noted, so no one was swayed toward any particular lending institution.)

Assessing the Government's New Grant Programs

A year ago, it would have been hard to find a bigger fan of the federal government's two new grant programs for students than Marie R. Mons, she acknowledges. Mons believed that the Academic Competitiveness Grant and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant Programs, created by Congress in February 2006, would be a boon for students at Georgia Institution of Technology, where she is director of student financial planning and services. The programs, designed to draw more low-income students into science and technology fields, seemed tailor-made for a place like Georgia Tech. "I was seeing dollar signs," she said Monday at a NASFAA session entitled, "ACG and SMART One Year Later: Was the Promise Fulfilled?" "I thought we were going to get lots and lots of money for lots and lots of recipients."

Mons was wrong, she told peers at the NASFAA session. Although 464 students at Georgia Tech received grants through one of the two programs last year, for a total of $727,601 in new aid, fewer than 25 percent of Pell Grant recipients at the institution qualified for the new grants, and this year, many of those recipients failed to qualify to renew their grants, leaving Georgia Tech in the difficult position of having to find $150,000 in "lost" aid to give to those needy students.

Perhaps most significantly, she said, "I can find no evidence that the SMART Grants have influenced any student’s choice of major," even though Congress intended the awards to draw more students into engineering, math or other scientific disciplines.

The other participants in Monday's session represented a diverse set of institutions -- Doane College, a private institution in Nebraska, and Northern Virginia Community College -- but none of them (nor few of the audience members, for that matter) had particularly kind words for the two new federal programs, which U.S. Education Department officials have defended as being off to a good start.

Virtually everyone applauded the aim of the programs and the fact that, at their core, they are designed to put more money in the hands of low-income students. But the way the programs were designed (in a matter of days as members of Congress negotiated a compromise budget deal in late 2005) has undercut those admirable aims, most participants in Monday's session said.

The Academic Competitiveness Grant Program is "not a community college friendly program," said Carol Mowbray, director of financial aid at Northern Virginia Community College. Although the two-year institution is one of the country's largest, with more than 60,000 students on five campuses, just 75 students qualified for awards totaling $54,000 students, she said.

A range of factors contributed to the poor usage rate, Mowbray said, but foremost among them were program requirements that disqualified part-time students, those seeking certificates instead of degrees, and non-citizens. "It's a very sad story," she said.

Even officials at some institutions with significant numbers of grant recipients questioned the programs' design. Joe Paul Case, director of financial aid at Amherst College, noted that students at the elite private college had qualified for $250,000 in funds through the two programs, but those funds didn't draw any new needy students into higher education -- they "just lowered our scholarship expenditure and netted us a quarter million dollars in additional revenue," Case said.

"Is [it] fair" that Amherst benefited in that way when many needy students could not qualify for the grants? "No," said Case. "You have to what was the Congressional intent in this."

Participants in the session said they were heartened that the U.S. Education Department seemed to be seriously considering regulatory changes that might help the programs better target funds to the right students, and that they recognized that programs take time to seep into the public consciousness, among other things so that parents and students can take the right courses in middle and high school to meet the programs' curricular requirements.

Perhaps the session "ACG and SMART Two Years Later" at the 2008 NASFAA conference will have a more upbeat tone.

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