The CashCourse team interviewed the 2016 Financial Educator of the Year, Kristin Bhaumik, to learn more about her work with empowering students’ financial lives. Bhaumik is the assistant director for special programs at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and serves as the Michigan Student Financial Aid Association President.
CashCourse: How did you get involved with financial literacy?
Kristin Bhaumik: I gravitated towards it because I have always had an interest in financial wellness from a counseling perspective. So I started taking trainings through organizations like Texas Guarantee, Great Lakes and NEFE. As my base knowledge increased, I would get asked to do workshops and other expertise-based events. That snowballed into a personal passion and professional mission that continues today.
For many years, the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Michigan had been advocating for a course on campus around topics of financial literacy. The turning point was in 2013 when a group of highly engaged students in our College of Literature, Science and the Arts also called for the class and finally succeeded in making this course a reality. I was initially asked to consult on content and format for the course. Ultimately, I was selected to teach it. The students were the real push.
CC: Where did you get the inspiration for “The Financially Savvy Student” course?
KB: I started by considering the goals of the stakeholders: the administration, the students enrolling, and me. I developed a guiding belief that I use in my syllabus and that helps guide the class even now: “A financially savvy student doesn’t just understand why and how to make healthy personal financial choices, they see how those choices fit into the larger picture, they practice those choices daily and they help others in their families and communities to cultivate financial wellness.”
I looked to as many resources as I could possibly think of to start and was shocked at the lack of an established curriculum or materials for a college-level class. I looked extensively at CashCourse, a tool the University of Michigan has used for years, to identify important themes. In fact, CashCourse and NEFE publications like “40 Money Management Tips” remain core course materials today. I tried to isolate the topics that experts tend to agree are important for students to know and some more student-motivated topics that spoke to questions I heard every day in the aid office.
I created a hierarchy of the financially savvy student. We start with goals and then organization. You can’t do anything until those foundational skills are in place. We then move on to budgeting. I find that more students enroll to practice budgeting than any other topic I cover in the course. After the budget, the fourth part is saving and investing. You need to have a good handle on your spending to even know if you can afford to save. The top of my hierarchy is inspiring others. I want each of my students to be an ambassador for being savvy with your life. I came up with this structure and started to fill the content in around that.
CC: We were impressed with your work on changing how the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor disbursed loan packages. Could you tell me more about that process?
KB: I started to see many students being flagged for nearing their borrowing limits far faster than we would like. So I went to my supervisors and raised the red flag.
I started asking about how we could educate and encourage our borrowers to be smarter within the frameworks of Federal and institutional allowances. In 2013, we started an initiative called “Smart Borrowing.” It’s a student awareness initiative identifying a targeted population of borrowers and encouraging additional online counseling and, in some cases, asking they meet with financial aid officers to discuss their financial situation and have one-on-one consults before taking additional loans. It isn’t preventing students from borrowing what they can but it does give them a chance to pause.
In the first summer we implemented this initiative, overall borrowing went down 34% compared to that same term the previous year. Overall, we have seen a decrease in borrowing of about 5 percent due to continuing efforts to counsel students.
CC: Do you have any advice to others implementing financial literacy initiatives?
KB: I have had two major surprises on my journey with the financially savvy student movement. One of the surprises was the fear of “mis-action” from my students which led them to inaction. They are so afraid of getting it wrong that they won’t do anything at all. A lot of the delivery of information in my teaching and advising is to emphasize that it is okay to not do it “right.” You need to throw out that self-pressure and that emotional baggage and just try to do something today.
I was also surprised by how widespread the student interest was for additional education on these topics. I believe it is infinitely important for these types of learning opportunities to be as needs blind as possible. These skills are important to everyone and everyone can benefit from practice developing them. With limited resources, it isn’t always easy to reach all of our students but I would still emphasize the importance of trying.