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Financial Wellness Collaborative

Solving the mysteries of money

Financial Wellness Collaborative helps students keep their budgets healthy

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Meredith Earley is looking ahead to life after graduation from Central Michigan University in May, but she has some concerns.

"There are some things in the real world that I don't feel completely prepared for," she said — things like how she will cover living expenses, and potentially graduate school, "and all the things that I either haven't had to worry about as an undergrad or the things my parents had taken care of up until now."

A new CMU initiative targets worries like these with financial know-how.

The Financial Wellness Collaborative, launched this summer in partnership between the Finance and Administrative Services and Enrollment and Student Services divisions, helps students navigate everything from applying for loans and paying tuition, to saving up and spending wisely. Resources on its new website include links to setting a budget, saving money, understanding credit and student loans.

The initiative also partners with CashCourse, a service of the National Endowment for Financial Education that, among other things, allows students and alumni to sign in for free online financial education modules and to question financial experts and see the questions and responses of other users.

It's all part of a larger plan that "started as a very small idea," said Kim Wagester, assistant controller in CMU's financial services office.

Wagester's previous role in financial services was in the Student Service Court, the office that handles student account services such as paying bills and managing financial aid.

Being a numbers person, she said she was surprised at how many students "came here with no clue on how much college was going to cost them and how they were going to pay for it."

The initiative grows

When Alex Kappus joined financial services last fall, he and Wagester put their heads together to chip away at the problem. Kappus now is assistant director of the Sarah R. Opperman Leadership Institute, where Earley also works. He told her about the website, which debuted in October.

“We can’t change the cost of education, but we can help students make good decisions so they understand in the short term and long term what that means for them.” — Kim Wagester

Wagester said last year she and Kappus began holding presentations to teach students about savings, expenses, budgeting, credit and loans. They also gave them some tips to start with, such as knowing:• How much they are paying per credit hour.

  • How many total credit hours they'll need to take each semester to graduate on time.
  • That they don't have to take the full amount of the loan they get approved for.
  • That they can start paying down their loans before graduation.
  • "Once we started doing that, the project got really big really quickly," she said.

They soon had people from several departments at the university requesting presentations wherever there was a concentration of students, she said.

It became clear the duo needed help, and they got it. They received funding to have a graduate assistant develop student programming, Kappus said.

The collaborative has four work groups — student recruitment, student transition, student retention and success, and graduating students and alumni — composed of staff from around the university, he said. The groups are looking at ways to reach students at those levels. 

"We are conducting focus groups of staff, faculty, students and alumni to identify the needs," he said. They then will recommend any necessary changes in policies, deadlines or operations.

Meanwhile, they're hiring student "money mentors" to make presentations to residence halls, councils and student organizations, and to do some on-demand workshops. Within a year or two, they want to have trained mentors available for one-on-one money management counseling.

"The peer-to-peer component is really important," he said.

Where to from here?

"We want to think about communicating, programming, information and training of our staff and faculty at every stage of the student experience," Kappus said.

A steering committee meets twice a month to keep the ball rolling.

The vision is that the financial education of students will begin at the recruitment stage and continue through graduation, graduate school and to alumni.

The ultimate goal: "We can't change the cost of education," Wagester said, "but we can help students make good decisions so they understand in the short term and long term what that means for them."

The collaborative already has made a difference for Earley.

"I'm so grateful that I have learned about this before I exited the university," she said. "I would encourage other students to take advantage of it."

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