2017 CashCourse Financial Educator of the Year: Paul Goebel

CashCourse is proud to announce Paul Goebel as our 2017 CashCourse Financial Educator of the Year! As the Director of the University of North Texas Student Money Management Center, Goebel leads an outstanding student-centered financial education initiative. He has helped set up other student money management centers around the country and is a leader in developing financial literacy best practices for college campuses. We interviewed Goebel to learn more about his work in collegiate financial education.

CC: How did you get involved with financial education?

PG: It was actually a textbook example of a parking lot conversation. In the summer of 2005, I was invited to join a friend for dinner during a conference she was attending with several colleagues. One colleague happened to be Dr. Bonita Jacobs, our former vice president of student affairs. During the dinner, Dr. Jacobs shared her ideas on financial literacy and vision of establishing a new financial literacy program on the UNT flagship campus in Denton.

I don’t recall particulars of the evening’s discussion, but I do remember sharing my ideas about program development, whether they were warranted or not. I must have impressed Dr. Jacobs enough for her to consider me for a newly funded assistant director position that fall to create and implement a new financial literacy program that fall. Dr. Jacobs had secured nine months of initial funding with the understanding that I needed to prove that financial literacy programming was relevant and of value to students. A daunting and exciting opportunity.

One thrilling aspect of the position was it being a true startup opportunity. I had never been involved in any type of entrepreneur position in my professional career up until that point. The job offer was very exciting, but also a bit scary since no programming or department existed on campus.

I guess I have proven Dr. Jacobs’ confidence since twelve years later I am still leading one of the most amazing departments and teams on campus. Every year more students take advantage of our programs and services. To see our efforts have an immediate impact in the lives of students is the greatest aspect of providing financial education on a college campus.

CC: Can you describe the work done by the Student Money Management Center at University of North Texas?

PG: The programs and services our team has developed over the years can be summed up in two words: student success. From a program development perspective we have built our programs and services on four primary focus areas:

1. Information
We fulfill this by our online resources and social media, which includes a dynamic website and invaluable online resources through partnerships, such as CashCourse.

2. Education
We fulfill this by providing all students with a comprehensive calendar of diverse outreach programming and events every semester. This academic year alone our outreach team will provide about 150 different types of events and programs to our students.

3. Application
The greatest degree of personalized service we provide to students is through our coaching services. Students truly get to drive the bus at these sessions; they get to decide what is discussed and what tasks and deadlines we include in the action plan developed during the session. We can conduct coaching sessions in person, by Web, by phone, by email – whatever works for them. We are here to serve.

4. Retention
We are a very unique financial literacy program in that we manage several specialized loan programs administered by our division. We began with two loan programs and today we oversee five programs. These programs were created as alternative funding sources to help students with unanticipated or emergency-related expenses threatening their enrollment. For many students, their financial aid does not cover all bills. We don’t want to see students drop out because they have a bill they can’t pay.

CC: What are you most proud of in your work in financial education?

PG: My greatest point of pride is our peer mentor program. I always envisioned the dynamic engagement we could realize having students serving as peer mentors on our team. It just took us longer to see our dreams turn into realities.

With the funding support of a foundation grant, we were able to pilot a peer mentor program in the Fall of 2008. Since that time we have welcomed an incredible cadre of mentors from a variety of degree programs and backgrounds. Our peer mentors bring such creativity and responsibility to their work. They have far exceeded any expectations that I may have had on what I thought peers could accomplish. Our students can walk into any classroom and make an immediate connection with other students. Seeing that immediate connection is inspirational.

I’m also incredibly proud that today all of our marketing materials and social media posts are created by our peer mentors and graduate assistant. Having marketing materials that are both student-centered and student-designed is incredibly rewarding.

CC: Do you have any advice for other schools implementing financial education?

PG: From my personal experience, my advice to other colleagues exploring financial literacy and wellness programs is to just do it! Build it and students will come. Play to your strengths and research other programs at peer and inspirational institutions. Bring back the building blocks of a program that is tailored to your students. While we enjoy a diverse array of services and programs being provided by our center, I never expect any other campus to replicate the UNT model in its entirety. Instead, we want colleagues to take the best from our program model and dip it in their own school colors to meet their students’ needs.

When it comes to program development, I live by one mantra - Don’t reinvent the wheel, when you can steal the whole cart. There are some incredible best practices in financial literacy/wellness out there. Don’t just respect them, steal them. Bring ideas and materials back to your school as you transition them into a dynamic and diverse program.

My other piece of advice is that one size does not fit all. All students do not learn by one common resource or medium. Any student programming needs to be diverse in message and means. Some students will learn by coming to a presentation, others will learn online, while other students need that one-on-one coaching opportunity. Finding the right combination of programming types and timing is the ongoing challenge and Holy Grail facing any student service on any campus; how do we connect with all students?

Remember to engage students not only as customers, but also as partners. Students can provide great insights as members of a steering or advisory committee. Students can provide greater support as mentors and student employees. I truly believe that more than half of the staffing of any campus-based student services office should be represented by student workers.

Don’t forget that a good portion of your time will be spent in marketing and promoting your programs. Financial literacy/wellness programming is still a relatively new concept throughout higher education. You will be competing with all of the opportunities students have on your college campus for their free time outside of the classroom. Find ways to promote your programs and services to students. Use every means of communication available. Let students create your marketing materials to cut through the clutter of messaging from other on-campus departments. Be patient and persistent.

CC: What factors do you believe a program needs for long-term success?

PG: I think you need three factors for success with financial literacy/wellness programming.

1. Senior administration advocacy and buy-in.
I was very fortunate to have such support from my first day on campus through Dr. Jacobs. Without her support and vision our center would not have succeeded.

2. Teamwork.
UNT prides itself on being a student-centered campus. As such I have made a commitment that under my leadership more than half of our team will always be represented by students. I cannot stress enough the incredible creativity, energy, and innovation that our student team members bring to our services, programs, and events.

3. Collaboration.
If you are the only person on your campus advocating for your program, I doubt you will be employed for long. It truly takes an entire campus to sustain any type of new programming, especially one that cuts across institutional org charts, divisions, and silos. From our first semester we reached out to form collaborations with other departments. Today, we have more than 70 different partnerships this academic year alone with both on-campus departments and off-campus partners. Through this spirit of collaboration we have been able to enhance and expand our services to better serve students.

CC: Anything else you would like to add?

PG: Being the leader of my campus’s financial literacy programming and team has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. To see hope return to the faces of students who thought their financial situations were hopeless is unbelievably rewarding. Even after nearly twelve years, being able to say that I truly love my job is priceless.