Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The college process: Financial literacy awareness

As I drove into Turner Courts the other day, a mother quickly got out of her car and flagged me down. She explained that her son went to a Christian college last year and is unable to go back because they say he owes $6500. She doesn't understand how this could have happened and why the school didn't say anything last year. Her impression was that he didn't need any loans or extra money because Pell grants would pay for his college (Allow me to debunk that myth!). She was also concerned because she recognizes her own credit is bad and she knows if his education depends on her credit, he will not be able to attend college. Not only that, now that he owes this money, he will probably be blocked from entering any other university (even a less expensive one) as well.

The way our system is currently set up, the most vulnerable in our society are getting bamboozled. The ones who do decide to put faith in the post-secondary education system are not given adequate information to help them successful maneuver through it.

True enough, no one is absolved of responsibility because of lack of knowledge. Each of us have a responsibility to know what we are getting into and it is our responsibility to weigh those costs (financially and otherwise). However, when a person doesn't know that they don't know...or don't know that they need to find out, the odds are quickly stacked against someone.

The entire college financial process is set up in a way that assumes people understand loans, know how to research interest rates, can afford some type of low-interest debt, understand payment options, have checking accounts and credit cards, and know where to go if they don't know or understand something. The people who are most successful in that system are people who are part of families that already know, understand, and function within areas of business, housing loans, and credit on a daily basis. The people I know are functioning in sub-prime mortgages (if they have a mortgage), payday loans, and juggling which bill to pay this month.

Unfortunately, it is not mandatory, as far as I know, for a high school student to go through a "general business" class as I did, that teaches them how to write checks, balance a check book, and understand "general business." Based on what I've seen, I think every school should make "General Business" a required, fundamental course. Kids should have to pass a hands-on class that help them get a bank account, learn about loans, grants, sub-prime mortgages, manage a credit cards, understand finance rates, make a budget, and prioritize expenses. It may not change their decision-making overnight, but at least people will begin gaining the knowledge to make wiser decisions.

Despite theirs and their parents lack of "general business" knowledge, students are still thrown into the college pool of grants and loans. I've noticed the colleges have taken a small step to educate students by requiring them to take an online, 10-minute course on loans before e-signing the paperwork. The course is actually pretty good, if you already have a basic understanding of loans. But to an 18-year old (or even a parent) who doesn't have the financial literacy knowledge, there needs to be a financial counselor and advisor available and assigned to them. The unfortunate thing is despite the lack of knowledge, if a person wants to go to college there really are no options but to just sign the loan agreements and move forward.

Financial aid people aren't always the most helpful...or the most concerned with a student's pocketbook and well-being. While I was at the college with one student, one of the financial aid people was apparently irritated at my numerous questions. I wanted to understand if the student *needed* the entire $4000 loan (in addition to the $3500 in Stafford loans and the $2000 in Work Study they had already qualified for) or if there was a more exact amount they could tell us (after all, why take out a loan on more money than you need???). The lady replied in a rather short tone saying that the student might get a $500 reimbursement check but "that's nothing." Who is she to say "that's nothing" when she isn't the one who will be paying that money back with interest??? Loans other than Stafford usually have a higher, accumulated interest rate. Why take out more and get yourself into greater debt later?

It really amazes me that there is so much talk about poor people "taking advantage of" the programs the government offers. Each student I've worked with usually gets their entire Pell grant and still has to take out the maximum Stafford loans (subsidized AND unsubsidized) and STILL has to take out more loans. I'm not a fan of charity, but I do believe in education. And I believe if we really want our workforce to be more educated, if we really value ALL of our children, if we really want to change the welfare system, then we have to start on the front end. We have to equip the kids in the schools and set them up for success by providing kids and families with easily accessible and non-threatening information that helps them obtain success.
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