What better time than an economic crisis, many colleges think, to teach students financial literacy. While many institutions have been creating such programs in recent years, they are now seeing increased interest that may grow in the coming months.
At California State University at Northridge -- one of the system’s largest campuses -- all students who receive loans must enroll in a non-credit financial literacy course. Lili Vidal, the university’s director of financial aid and scholarships, said nearly half of the institution’s 36,000 students receive loans. Most of these students, she continued, are either first-generation college students or from working-class families. Though these students are required to complete loan-entrance counseling to qualify for federal dollars, they also must complete a Northridge-specific segment teaching them personal financial planning. Both the counseling and the financial-planning segment are incorporated into a one-hour session prior to a student's receipt of his or her first Stafford Loan .
Vidal argues this additional coursework prepares students for the major responsibility of borrowing money. While the financial literacy program is a good start, she said it is still hard to reach many students.
“Students are making decisions that they don’t realize will impact their whole lives,” Vidal said. “Even if you tell them, it doesn’t mean anything to them at that point. There’s so much more for people to deal with financially these days. It’s just more complex than it used to be.”
This semester, Cal State Northridge will expand its financial literacy program into the classroom. Vidal said the university will integrate a short course from Decision Partners  -- a Boston-based online learning organization -- entitled “Financial Literacy 101 ” into its voluntary for-credit freshman seminar , an introduction to college-level research and time management. In addition to teaching students the basics of personal finance, the addition to the course will also instruct them how to manage loans and minimize credit card debt. Vidal added that the short course will be required separately of upperclassmen who do not meet the satisfactory academic requirements set by the institution’s financial aid office.
Though Vidal lauds the expansion of the program, she said it would be difficult to make a course in financial literacy a requirement of all students. Instead, she hopes to see financial lessons integrated into other academic courses, much like their recent inclusion in the university’s freshman seminar.
“I would like to see financial literacy incorporated into the academic fabric so that there are multiple courses that address its different aspects as they move up in coursework and near graduation,” Vidal said, noting that a number of business professors at the institution have approached the financial aid office about such a move. “You can’t throw everything at entry-level freshmen. It would be too overwhelming for them.”
Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts institution in New York City, has a full-fledged Financial Fluency Program for both students and alumnae. Linda Reals, the undergraduate program’s manager, said it tries to reach students as soon as they enter campus. Financial literacy courses are offered to students during their first-year orientation, one week prior to the start of the academic year. The undergraduate program, Reals said, focuses more on the basics of personal financial management such as making and honoring a budget. For the many young women who experience their first taste of independence in a city as expensive as New York, she said this can be a challenge.
“You can walk ten blocks down Broadway and your ATM withdrawal will be gone,” Reals said, noting that it is important to connect students to the day-to-day financial realities of their lives. “If I could only follow my own advice sometimes -- one of the classic examples I give to my classes is my Starbucks addiction. One year, I saved $2,000 by making my own coffee.”
The program offers many not-for-credit workshops throughout the semester for undergraduates on topics as varied as “credit card management and protecting yourself from identity theft” to “how to have fun in NYC without going broke.” Counselors are also available for one-on-one sessions with students about developing their own personal budget or saving plan. Still, Reals said the main focus of the program is to help students learn the basics of the financial world so that they can attain their own personal goals.
“There are industry lingo to keep the initiated in and the uninitiated out,” Reals said. “The lingo is certainly there in finance. Still, managing one’s personal finances is not rocket science and, with some planning, anyone can do it.”
In 2006, Barnard’s Financial Fluency Program expanded to serve alumnae. Christine Valenza Shin, the program’s director, said the alumnae program  focuses on more developed financial concepts such as investing and long-term planning. To date, she said about 170 alumnae have participated in this program. While Shin said the college does not currently have the infrastructure to open its financial literacy program to the public, she noted that it does wish to expand further to accommodate community interest. As the alumnae program is funded by donations, she noted, expansion is dependent upon continued funding.
Though the financial literacy programs at Barnard are not required of any students, the college’s president argued that they are essential in creating the leaders of tomorrow. Debora Spar, new Barnard president and former Harvard Business School professor, said people who understand finance play a disproportionate role in society. If her institution wishes to create women leaders, she said, it needs to ensure that its students are fluent in the financial world.
“This is a tough topic to get college students to think about,” Spar said. “I think a financial fluency requirement is going to be a hard sell to undergraduates in the liberal arts college setting. But, we can take advantage of the calamity that is going on before us. We’re not talking about 1929 anymore. We’re talking about the present day.”
Financial literacy has also garnered the attention of a number of national educational organizations. For example, the United Negro College Fund  is sponsoring a tour of a historically black colleges and universities  which also promote financial literacy and responsibility. Hill Harper, actor and author, headlines the tour with a presentation about self-empowerment and money management. Additionally, members of Wachovia Foundation  will host workshops on savings and investing at each stop. Edith Bartley, UNCF director of government affairs, said the organization hopes to see more institutions engaged in conversations about student finances following this tour. Now, she said, is the appropriate time to instruct students about finance.
“It takes a crisis for us to react,” Bartley said. “What’s going on with the economy, it has people’s attention. The urgency is here, particularly when we talk about students having to pay the rising cost of tuition."