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Ramping Up Financial Literacy

Credit: Marlayna Demond for University of Maryland, Baltimore County. UMBC’s FinancialSmarts curriculum helps prepare students to make good financial decisions long before they approach graduation.
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Once a month, the Financial Literacy and Education Committee (FLEC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) convenes to discuss the best ways to help our more than 13,000 students manage money. One of the unique aspects of this committee is that participation isn’t mandated. Some of us work in financial aid, some in enrollment management, and others in student business services. We’ve come together organically and meet voluntarily as colleagues who all have an interest in helping students make informed and effective financial decisions.

A Program for Every Student

FLEC’s goal is to ensure UMBC students are able to realize the full benefit of their degree when they graduate by equipping them with the information and resources they need to make good decisions along the way—including decisions that may have long-term financial impacts. When FLEC formed in 2011, we knew financial literacy education was occurring on campus, but it wasn’t taking place in a coordinated fashion. For example, instructors often incorporated a financial literacy component into their first-year seminar courses, but only slightly more than half of UMBC’s first-year students take one of those courses. We needed more ways to reach more students.

UMBC now requires that financial literacy be integrated into all first-year seminars. Of the students in those seminars, 91 percent have reported receiving good guidance related to their financial skills and understanding. In addition, UMBC’s FinancialSmarts curriculum is a coordinated and multifaceted approach to financial education that provides an avenue for addressing students’ unique situations and varying needs. The FinancialSmarts curriculum has evolved to encompass these programs:

FinancialSmarts 101. During new student orientation—required of all freshmen and transfer students—we devote one session to financial literacy and the tools UMBC offers. Current students help deliver the 20-minute introduction, which typically includes fun videos and skits. We want new students to understand that becoming financially literate starts even before they attend their first UMBC class, not when they’re seniors or after they’ve graduated. A parallel session is offered to family members as part of the family orientation program; it shares strategies for reducing educational expenses, such as promoting degree completion within four years.

FinancialSmarts CashCourse. Because FLEC’s members all have other institutional responsibilities, it is difficult for us to generate original content on financial literacy and keep it updated. We have found that it is more effective to leverage content prepared by other experts. Our first partnership was with the National Endowment for Financial Education, which has developed a free, online, self-paced program. NEFE agreed to allow UMBC to transfer the content into our own learning management system so we could make it available to anyone with a UMBC login, including staff. The seven-module course, which takes a total of six hours to complete, covers topics such as budgeting, saving, investments, and debt management. Participants must pass a quiz before moving to the next module.

Over time, we have supplemented and customized the original NEFE content with videos, reflection questions, and games. Using our own learning management system allows us to track student participation and offer incentives. For example, students who complete the CashCourse preassessment and one module are automatically entered into a drawing for a $100 credit on their campus card. We highly encourage first-year students to enroll in the course the summer before they matriculate—otherwise it’s difficult to capture their attention. As of September 2019, 1,575 students had self-enrolled in CashCourse, and 577 of them had completed all the modules. All CashCourse graduates receive a UMBC digital badge to demonstrate their competence in personal financial management.

FinancialSmarts Grant. First-year UMBC students who are eligible for a Pell Grant and have an “expected family contribution” of $0 can receive an additional $500 grant by completing the CashCourse. In UMBC’s second year of administering this program, 37.7 percent of eligible students were awarded the one-time, need-based grant.

Financial Education Playlists. Through a dedicated website (, students can easily access content provided by TIAA, another partner in UMBC’s financial literacy efforts. TIAA has assembled a library of short presentations on topics such as identity protection, insurance, and sustainable investing. These provide an easy entry point for students who desire financial information but aren’t ready to commit to the CashCourse.

Money Smart Week. UMBC hosted its first Money Smart Week this past spring, which was modeled on the national public education program designed to empower people with the knowledge and skills to make better-informed personal financial decisions around the key financial pillars of saving, spending, borrowing, and planning. The weeklong series of activities drew predominantly first-year and graduate-level students. Interestingly, engineering and IT students participated at higher rates than the general student population, and on-campus students participated more than commuters. We’re using the data we collected to inform our overall financial literacy programming as well as plans for next year’s event.

MyBudgetCoach®. This online platform, provided through a partnership with the nonprofit CASH Campaign of Maryland, matches each student participant with a volunteer financial coach. All of the coaches serving UMBC students are themselves UMBC alumni who have received training in helping people develop healthy financial habits. The matched pairs have one-on-one meetings over the course of eight months. Many of the 16 alumni who completed the five-hour training to become a budget coach for 2019, our pilot year, have expressed their satisfaction in finding a new way to stay connected to the institution as a volunteer. If interest in the program increases, we are considering recruiting UMBC staff to also serve as coaches.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. In partnership with the Internal Revenue Service, UMBC provides free, on-campus income tax preparation services for students, staff, and community members who meet income eligibility requirements. UMBC students are trained to prepare the returns themselves by taking a 15-hour course and passing an IRS certification exam. They even gain valuable tax knowledge and work experience in the process. For the 2018 tax year, our 62 volunteer preparers served 540 households—a 52 percent increase in the number of clients over the previous year.

Credit Cafe. In collaboration with the local nonprofit financial counseling group CCCSMD, formerly Guidewell Financial Solutions, UMBC brings credit counselors to campus once or twice a year for free one-on-one meetings with students. During these meetings a counselor will review a student’s credit report, help the student understand the basis for the rating, and offer individualized strategies for managing credit decisions. We primarily market this event to upperclassmen and graduate students.

Investing in the Future

We know these programs are working when we look at UMBC’s loan default rate, which as of September 2019 was 4.2 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for other public four-year institutions. This statistic speaks to the employability of our students, their financial capabilities, and their understanding of financial obligations.

Still, we want to do more to help students make sound financial decisions, so we’re considering developing a peer-adviser program and expanding staffing beyond one student worker. We would also like to establish a physical location for financial literacy programs so students can access resources and services in person. Currently, we’re testing a model that funds both a full-time financial literacy program assistant and a student worker. If we make the case that sustained staffing support would benefit students’ financial literacy, that function would be incorporated into enrollment management, further solidifying UMBC’s commitment to the financial well-being of its students.

SUBMITTED BY Yvette Mozie-Ross, vice provost of enrollment management and planning, and Trisha Wells, assistant vice provost, division of professional studies administration and finance, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Credit: Marlayna Demond for University of Maryland, Baltimore County. UMBC’s FinancialSmarts curriculum helps prepare students to make good financial decisions long before they approach graduation.

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