An Interdisciplinary Partnership to Address Financial Literacy among Undergraduate Students
By Stephen Hill, Eileen Beiter and Cathy Leverone
Small comprehensive institutions offer unique opportunities for collaboration across academic levels. Specifically, we found an opportunity for peer learning through graduate/undergraduate course collaboration, furthering the promotion of financial literacy among undergraduate students. Eileen Beiter, Associate Professor of Accounting, and Cathy Leverone, Assistant Professor of Finance, decided to explore ways to integrate financial literacy into their capstone courses at Nazareth College. As preliminary discussion began, fellow faculty member Dr. Stephen Hill, Assistant Professor of Management, joined the group with students from his “Organizational Development and Change” class to give the project an interdisciplinary approach. The graduate students served as process consultants for focus group facilitation and survey design. With the help of a local financial literacy community partner, the Financial Literacy Focus Group Pilot at Nazareth College was born.
The purpose of our focus group was to create an opportunity for peer learning across levels. The graduate/undergraduate design of this project allowed students across academic levels the opportunity to interface while applying knowledge in their particular subject areas. The undergraduate students were asked to determine the level of personal financial knowledge of typical undergraduates and to determine what financial topics caused them stress or concern. Their goal was to aid in the development of a financial literacy program created for students, by students, that would educate undergraduates in their areas of financial concern. The graduate students were process consultants in this effort. The primary goal for the graduate students was to provide an opportunity to apply best practices to address a consulting issue for the community partner. A description of the project, including challenges, benefits, and future direction is presented in this paper.
Financial Landscape and Educational Approach
Personal finance can be a source of stress for many individuals. According to Bethune (2015), “For the majority of Americans (64%), money is a somewhat or very significant source of stress, but especially for parents of children below the age of 18 and younger adults” (p. 38). An Ohio State University (2015) study reports 70% of students feel stressed about their personal finances. Meeting educational expenses as well as monthly expenses was a leading contributor to this stress. Additionally, the Ohio State study revealed that 32% of students reported neglecting their schoolwork because of financial stress.
We chose a service learning approach to understand the financial stress of our students. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (n.d.) cites service learning as a high impact teaching and learning practice. Given that financial literacy data point to a need for better personal financial management strategies for college students, the idea of developing a service-learning project was a natural fit. According to Watkins and Braun (2005), “Service-learning is a form of experiential learning and teaching that achieves course objectives while meeting an identified community need” (p.1). The authors indicate that service-learning provides (among other things) an opportunity for students to actively engage in hands-on experiences connected to academic coursework.
Our community partner is a not-for-profit, 501(c) (3) organization focused on financial wellness providing services that include financial education, student loan counseling, and debt management programs. Taking into account that our community partner’s mission is to promote financial literacy through education, we saw an opportunity to bring together our community partner and a group of college students who are part of the demographic experiencing financial stress.
Our original plan with the community partner was to engage in a grant-funded financial literacy program where undergraduate students would work with high school students. Because of a scheduling conflict, our partner completed this program without us. As a result, we redirected our efforts to a financial literacy-training pilot and asked our community partner to provide training in financial literacy topics. Our partner met with both graduate and undergraduate students and provided brief training in focus group facilitation. Our community partner identified critical areas for the development of financial literacy, including credit scores, understanding banking, and managing debt. The training was valuable but did not provide the expected financial literacy content that the undergraduate students were expecting. Further, this training was contrary to the expectations of the graduate students, who had anticipated providing the focus group training.
Student Learning Outcomes
The project was planned with the objective that undergraduate students would gain experience in the facilitation of a peer-led focus group. This objective would be accomplished through the students’ preparation of the topic, definition of the group conversation parameters, facilitation of group conversation, refocus of the group back on the topic (as needed), summary of group discussion, and analysis of results. In addition, it was our objective that our students would gain an increased knowledge of financial literacy topics. This goal would be achieved through meeting with our community partner. These student learning outcomes were directly related to the stated student learning outcomes for the Accounting and Finance Senior Seminar courses.
The graduate students within the Organizational Development and Change course were charged with creating an organizational intervention project that integrated workplace experiences into classroom learning. These students had the ability to engage in a service-learning project and assist a local community organization with mission-related work. Two graduate project groups served as process consultants, working with the focal organization and undergraduate student facilitators to prepare focus group questions and group protocol consistent with best practices in training and survey design. The groups created pre- and post-test survey instruments to determine the effectiveness of the training. Final recommendations, conclusions, and insights from the project were discussed with the financial literacy community partner during the final class meeting of the semester. Both graduate and undergraduate students presented their findings at a school-wide conference, the Creative Activity and Research Showcase (CARS).
Two weeks prior to conducting the focus group pilot, the graduate and undergraduate students met with our community partner, who provided materials and guidance for leading a focus group on financial literacy.
The day of the pilot, we convened a group of approximately 70 Nazareth undergraduate students across majors to participate in conversations about personal financial topics. The students were recruited through announcements in the School of Business and Leadership classes and by word of mouth. The meeting was held at a common lunch hour, with lunch provided, when no classes would conflict with student schedules. The undergraduate focus group leaders led the discussion, while the graduate students interacted with attendees observing the discussions. While the undergraduate students recruited their peers, we are unaware of any prior peer-led focus group experience among the student facilitators.
The undergraduate students were split into six discussion groups. Three of the groups were asked open-ended questions around the following topics: establishing and building credit scores, understanding banking, and managing debt. The other three groups were tasked to discuss managing student loans, wise spending and saving, and saving for the future (i.e. retirement). Our community partner identified these topics as critical areas in which to develop personal financial literacy.
Findings of the Financial Literacy Focus Groups
The undergraduates were debriefed after the focus group meeting, and many participants disclosed that thinking about their personal finances caused them stress. The primary stressor was the future management of student loans. The majority of students were unclear how student loans worked and did not understand some of the related terminology. This is significant given that student loan debt is $1.5 trillion with a default rate of 11% (Friedman, 2018)
The focus group findings also indicated that at this stage of their life, undergraduate students were not concerned about retirement planning or establishing good credit. They did not see these topics as relevant to their immediate future. We have surmised that they may have a short-term focus and may not be considering the long-term strategies that could secure their financial future.
Given that the design of the focus group intervention was non-directive in nature, it can be challenging to measure knowledge transfer in this type of activity. Although the focus groups pursued various approaches in utilizing the pre/post methodology, one graduate student group reported that 50% of their student participants reported increased confidence in personal financial knowledge as a result of the focus group sessions.
Upon the conclusion of the focus groups, each faculty member conducted debriefing sessions with their classes and asked students to reflect upon the challenges and successes of this project. We encountered our own challenges when we tried to blend the graduate students with undergraduate students. Motivation (or “senioritis”) was a significant challenge.
The graduate students were motivated, enthusiastic, and excited about assisting the community organization and partnering with undergraduate students. However, several graduate students reported that their undergraduate student collaborators did not share the same motivation for this project. Specifically, the graduate students noted extreme difficulty in communicating (via e-mail) with the undergraduate students prior to the project. The undergraduate students did not proactively communicate regarding focus group preparation or meeting requests. These communication difficulties limited the dissemination of best practices and appropriate focus group protocol by the graduate students to the undergraduate facilitators in advance of the group discussions.
The graduate student teams prepared pre- and post-assessments designed to measure self-reported knowledge in each of the training categories, along with the perceived utility of the focus group process. Overall, the graduate student teams found the undergraduate student facilitators lacked knowledge related to the core concepts of their discussion topics. The graduate students suggested that the initial training orientation provided by the community partner should have included additional content material that the facilitators could use to inform the participants. It was the graduate students’ perception that the undergraduate students had difficulty articulating information as they were facilitating.
The undergraduate students indicated they saw this project as one of many competing course priorities and did not allot the same urgency to meeting. Therefore, the undergraduate students were not wholly responsive to meeting requests made by the graduate students. Further, their schedules did not align well with the graduate students’ availability.
Aligning expectations of the two groups was an additional challenge. Since it was our first attempt at coordinating the project, establishing the roles that each would play proved to be difficult. Graduate students had higher expectations for the role they would play in educating the undergrads, particularly in focus group facilitation. The undergrads expected to be given more specific financial literacy content to communicate with their peers. Given the parameters provided to the students these results were not unexpected.
Our final challenge was the project timeline. Organizing the pilot and facilitating meetings between parties was complicated by a short timetable. This occurred in part due to the modification of the project by the community partner.
To remedy these challenges in the future, we suggest that students receive greater direction from faculty in terms of defining and communicating the roles and responsibilities of each group. We would arrange mandatory meetings between the graduate and undergraduate students to reduce the reliance on electronic communication, communication that proved to be ineffective. Finally, we believe that increasing the impact of the project on the course grade for undergraduates would elevate their motivation.
Dooley, Mahon, & Oshiro (2004) highlight the importance of graduate/undergraduate student collaboration on projects within the field of food science. The authors indicate that students gained knowledge of the research process and teamwork skills. Schneider and Bickel (2015) describe a learning community where graduate students can mentor undergraduate students as a way to improve retention within the STEM fields. Clearly, graduate and undergraduate student partnerships can provide multiple benefits to all parties involved. The project herein described can serve as a pathway for enhanced benefits of multilevel students’ collaboration across disciplines.
Both the graduate and undergraduate students were able to lead the financial literacy pilot program and provide feedback to improve the process going forward. An unexpected benefit is that the students worked on a project that had some gray areas. This can be particularly challenging for many students regardless of academic level. We had not been sure how the discussions would unfold, if focus group participants would attend, or if participants would fully engage in the discussions, and what we found about these questions will be helpful going forward.
As mentioned earlier, the students were able to showcase their work at our annual CARS (Creative Activity and Research Showcase) event. As indicated on the Nazareth College (n.d.) website, “CARS is an annual college-wide symposium celebrating students’ creative and scholarly work through posters, presentations, and performances” (n.p.). Students reported that presenting at this event was an impactful learning experience. In particular, they noted the following:
… I found this project to be beneficial in my education as well as my career, due to the importance of understanding what is needed for organizational change and development in the workplace and how to apply it. ~Graduate Student Participant
Participating in CARS was a very beneficial experience. I enjoyed seeing all of the research that students have done across various different majors and fields of study. Specifically, with our project, it was fun meeting with a wide range of students and assessing their knowledge indifferent areas of finance. I think that one of the biggest takeaways from doing this project would be that many students would like better access to information regarding their personal finances but aren’t sure where to find it. ~Undergraduate Student Participant
Our goal is to use this information to further develop a financial literacy platform at the College. Portions of financial literacy topics will be infused in a very deliberate way into the introductory Macroeconomics courses in the fall of 2019. Based upon our classroom debriefs and feedback sessions, students felt that more specific assessment of pre-workshop knowledge and targeted learning objectives would have been helpful in facilitating knowledge transfer, rather than utilizing focus groups with evolving topics.
The graduate/undergraduate design of the project allowed for peer-learning across three courses. Opportunities to arrange graduate/undergraduate student interaction and discussions may result in more effective communication and peer-learning. As faculty, this project exemplified our role as facilitators rather than instructors. We put students first, helping them teach and learn from one another. But we also learned that we needed to have a more detailed plan specifying the roles and expectations of the students involved.
Acknowledgment: The authors would like to thank Jennifer Leigh and Elizabeth Degnan for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.
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Nazareth College. (n.d.). (CARS): Creative Arts and Research Showcase. Retrieved from https://www2.naz.edu/creative- activity-and-research-showcase/
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