New unit takes on student debt

Faculty and staff: Have students shared financial reasons behind their need to drop a class or leave school for a semester? Do you have students falling behind academically because they're working multiple jobs to stay in school?

A new office in the student financial aid program aims to head off such statistics. The goal of the Student Loan Education Office, created through a partnership of the student affairs division and the Government of the Student Body (GSB), is to improve the overall financial health of Iowa State students and reduce their education loan debt through individual counseling and group presentations.

Student Loan Education Office

Location: 0680 Beardshear (northwest corner, ground floor)
Phone: 294-0677

Director of student financial aid Roberta Johnson said a primary message to students is to plan and budget long range -- not just a semester or a year at a time – and to recognize how day-to-day spending decisions reinforce or undermine their long-range plans.

"We're trying to touch as many students as we can," Johnson said. "Freshmen will be our first focus, but we are helping upperclassmen and graduate students, too."

Johnson encouraged faculty and staff to refer students to the new service.

Jennifer Schroeder, an eight-year veteran of the student financial aid office who leads the new office, said financial counselors can help students understand setting and living within a budget, the cost of borrowing money and what repayment will look like, credit, and implications of borrowing on their credit rating, among other topics. For requests that are beyond a typical student's experience – investments or home ownership, for example – Schroeder said students will be referred to an appropriate source, on or off campus.

GSB proposal

The new service is the outcome of a GSB request last spring to senior vice president for student affairs Tom Hill. In past years, GSB provided some funding to the Financial Counseling Clinic based in the human development and family studies department. A regular GSB audit in February of some of the campus units it supports noted that the clinic's focus was moving away from student service to faculty research and graduate student training.

"What we were looking for is financial counselors who are giving 100 percent of their time to counseling students," said GSB president Hillary Kletscher. "That was key to us as we made our shift. The student body funding this new office says that this is really important to us."

GSB leaders went to Hill with the general concept and negotiations began to create a new service unit within student financial aid. It opened in August on the ground floor of Beardshear Hall; on Oct. 22, senators approved nearly $117,000 in support for the Student Loan Education Office.

"Students often are as stressed about finances, about paying for school and rent and food, as they are about classes," Kletscher said. "We want help with this, but we don't always know where to get help."

While students initially pushed for a broader scope of services in the office, Kletscher said a presentation by recently retired professor of human development and family studies Tahira Hira "shifted our perspective."

"We realized the depth and width of the student loan debt crisis and saw the merits of an office that focuses more narrowly," she said.

Live like a student

When it's fully staffed, the student loan education office will include Schroeder and three other fulltime financial counselors. Two arrived in mid-September and are wrapping up a training period, and the last search will open yet this fall. Five part-time student employees staff the front desk and Schroeder said she hopes to hire one or two graduate assistants this year to assist with counseling.

Schroeder and her staff are making group presentations this semester, many to freshman classes, but also in a few senior seminars to begin the conversation about loan repayment and budgeting after college. Learning communities and student organizations also requested presentations. She said they will use both strategies – one-on-one sessions and class presentations – to assist students.

"We hope we build relationships with students, and that they come back and see us," she said.

Schroeder attended a first-of-its-kind conference this summer on student financial literacy in higher education. More than 150 schools sent representatives.

"A lot of schools are paying attention to this topic. How they structure the service looks different at different schools," she said.

But a very common theme among them is to encourage students to live like students now -- so they don't have to when they graduate.

Johnson noted that the array of opportunities available to Iowa State students also adds to their financial decisions.

"Maybe it's a phenomenal study abroad opportunity in their junior year, maybe it's a spring break trip they really can't afford," she said. "We won't tell students what to do, but we'll give them their options and the consequences of each."