The CashCourse team interviewed, Taylor Sminchak, to learn more about the University of Akron’s Ballin’ on a Budget campus-wide initiative. Sminchak, the coordinator of outreach at Akron’s ZipAssist office, sees financial wellness as a key factor to student success.
“As a student support and advocacy office, we do a lot at ZipAssist. At the end of the day, our mission is to help students stay in school and be successful during their time here at the University of Akron,” Sminchak says.
The office helps students with a wide variety of issues, but financial challenges are one of the most common. The office has a referral form where students can refer themselves or others who need support. The volume of financial concerns reported sparked the office to action.
“We began to notice that many of these issues stemmed from poor money management. The lack of financial education was apparent,” Sminchak describes. “We decided to focus on financial wellness so we began the ‘Ballin’ on a Budget’ campus initiative. We didn’t want to do a one-time workshop where students sit for an hour and go home. Instead, we wanted to make financial wellness a regular conversation across campus.”
Ballin’ on a Budget features different themes each month, all of which relate to the daily financial struggles college students experience. Sminchak was careful to include a variety of events, so that they could reach as many students as possible. Each month features an introductory webinar on the topic, an at-home challenge, an in-person workshop, and an e-newsletter summarizing the month’s events. For September, they focused on budgeting.
“For our September challenge, we had students track their spending for a week and then create a budget using a modified version of the CashCourse budget worksheet. If we had students spending more than they were earning, we reached out with our resources,” Sminchak says.
Knowing that personal finance can be intimidating to students, the ZipAssist office has tried to keep their events approachable. For many students, having an online option can make all the difference.
She advises, “Make your programs accessible and don’t focus on just in-person activities on campus. Students have busy lives, families, and many are online students. Webinars have been great because students can watch it on their own. They can also complete our challenges on their own. I recommend focusing on low risk activities that don’t require large time commitments.”
When asked about what advice she has for other schools planning similar programs, Sminchak was mindful that financial education is often a stretch role for many university staff and faculty.
“You do not have to be a financial expert to develop and facilitate a financial wellness program, so don’t be scared! My background is in financial aid and working in One Stop student services, so I have limited formal training in personal finance. I use that as an opportunity to bring in content experts from both on- and off campus.” Sminchak says.
By bringing in other experts on campus and in the community, she has been able to introduce students to additional resources available to them.
She describes, “Our students are hearing from different people and aren’t just hearing my voice all of the time. Students also realize the variety of resources available to them in the community. Examples of experts being featured in this year’s program include the United Way, the University Bookstore, our campus banking partner, and the University’s Nutrition Center.”
So far, the Ballin’ on a Budget initiative has had high participation numbers, and Sminchak notes they have seen students return for additional services as needed. She sees that students do have an interest in learning more about the topic, but often do not know where to start.
She says, “Financial wellness is so needed with this generation of students. Many were raised during the recession and are intimidated by money management. They do want to learn about financial wellness and colleges need to meet them where they are.”