10 Sep Counseling and Blogs

Jacquie Carroll, ED.D.

Campus Engagement and Education Consultant

American Student Assistance

Most of us have seen photos of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators wearing signs declaring their student debt. They know how much they owe, but they don’t know what do about it. And they’re not alone. A recent USA Today article noted what many of us in higher education already know: paying for college is a major concern for most of the population. An Alger Association Poll surveyed “1500 students ages 14-23 and found that three out of four students have major concerns about whether they will be able to pay for college (Aug. 8, 2012).”

Clearly, student loans are on everyone’s mind. Studies from the American Student Assistance® (ASA) portfolio revealed similar findings across a student population up to age 36 (What Students Think about Financial Literacy, 2010). But this isn’t just an issue that affects younger people. A recent Barclays report found that Americans ages 50-59 hold about 16% of the national student loan debt. Also surprising, The Wall Street Journal reported that the biggest jump for the student loan burden lies with upper-middle class families, and the average amount borrowed among upper-middle-income families rose more sharply than did those borrowing in lower-income households.

Across the U.S., the focus of the conversation has prompted plenty of discussion about the staggering student loan debt, with strategies aimed at lowering tuition and increasing financial aid opportunities. But not a lot of discussion has surrounded the issue of students with their repayment. It seems we’ve identified many of the issues that drive this problem, but we’ve yet to find appropriate solutions. Coming up with the right solution can be trial and error. At times, it may even lead us back to best practices and solutions from the past, but with a new spin.

Making smart financial decisions—not only about college, but about life goals in general—is something students are interested in. The ASA® study mentioned above also revealed that students want to learn more about finances; they just don’t know where to turn. While some students noted that they ask for advice from their parents, many also acknowledged that their parents are probably not the best resource to give financial advice. Another set of students said that even though they get advice from friends about many things, finances are generally not one of these, since many students believe their friends (in their words) “know as little as I do.”

What students do want is practical and accurate information from experts. And they want it right when they need it. Dain Zylstra is an osteopathic medical student who has access to financial experts through the SALTSM membership program provided by Western University Health Sciences. Dain reflected that “As complicated as our economy and our finances can be, it’s great to have someone to call who can provide me with timely and appropriate answers. Even though I’ll be in a high earning field, good financial planning is necessary for all income levels.”

There are two tools that can help in this area. They both provide access to experts, but they use different venues. In many cases, that expert is in the financial aid office. But many progressive schools such as Dain’s institution are providing access to student loan counseling through an avenue such as SALT. Instead of bogging down the financial aid office with calls that can be handled by a student loan counseling professional, institutions are freeing up their staff to take care of other financial aid issues. Linda Frenza, Associate Director of Financial Aid, states “It allows our staff to be more effective. We know that 80% of our students take up 20% of our time, and 20% of our students take up 80% of our time. Being able to direct them to another resource essentially buys us all more time.” The response from students has been positive, as well. One student explained, “I love the fact that I can call someone and actually speak to a person when I need help. Timing is very important.”

Since timing is essential, on-demand communication should also be considered. A blog is a great tool to provide students with information right when they need it. And let’s face it: blogs speak to students in a way they understand. Students want advice from someone who’s been there—someone who’s walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak. Financial literacy blogs resonate with students because people share personal stories about where they’ve been and where they’re going. Couple that with engaging posts about everyday things that relate to finances, such as food, pop culture, and anything else that seriously (or not so seriously) relates to money and students’ lives, and what do you get? A winning formula for effective communication.

As you work to get your message out to students, think about how you can use these two tools to help your offices, and also to help your students find the answers they need. Maybe in the near future we’ll be reading more positive headlines. After all, effective communication with our students is what matters most. We can send all the letters or emails we want, but if they aren’t reading or acting on what we’re sending, it doesn’t matter. Let’s give students what they want—and what works.