Financial literacy is an essential link in the chain of student success

Financial literacy is an essential link in the chain of student success
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When the modern-day U.S. Department of Education (ED) was established in 1979, personal computers were in their infancy, cell phones were science fiction and almost all financial transactions were face-to-face. While much has changed, the core functions underlying how America manages its $1.3 trillion federal student aid (FSA) program covering 42 million student loan borrowers are remarkably similar to what they were almost 40 years ago.

Much like technology, current students and their parents — FSA’s core customers — are nothing like the students and parents of 1979. Today, 86 percent of college undergraduates own smartphones, putting the internet in their pockets. But even with so much information — and an app for everything — at their fingertips, today’s college students are novices when it comes to their finances: 51 percent of students surveyed in a recent LendEdu study reported receiving no personal finance education in high school, and 45 percent reported they hadn’t taken and didn’t plan to take a personal finance course in college.

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Statistics like these contribute to the staggering fact that about 4.5 million Americans are in default on more than $75 billion in student loans. Despite a wealth of tools to help students identify their strengths, match them with educational programs offering a path to well-paying jobs, and complete their educations, only about half of college students actually graduate — and the ones who don’t face greatly increased odds of default.

This reality demands a fresh look at the way students plan and pay for college, and how we support students to help them succeed.

Recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDon’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to take over Afghan war MORE called for a modernization of educational infrastructure on par with world-class financial firms and connections with students from the beginning of the aid process through the life of their loans. Shortly thereafter, ED announced its plans to reimagine loan servicing — a big undertaking that aims to put taxpayer dollars to work in simplifying and improving the student loan servicing system from the inside out. And just last week, A. Wayne Johnson stepped back from his post as COO at FSA to shepherd these efforts in a newly created role as chief strategy and transformation officer.

These are important steps, but to truly incite change, we must think broadly and implement a holistic, long-term cumulative approach that begins in junior high and extends beyond college graduation if we hope to truly prepare students for higher education as well as the repayment of their accompanying financial obligations. Our hope is that Dr. Johnson will apply this holistic approach with his new role and that the creation of his position will give ED the capacity to think bigger and bolder for the benefit of students.

For instance, middle school students should have the opportunity to start matching their fields of interest to college programs so that they can begin to envision a career path and have a realistic understanding of what their earnings will look like. At this stage of exploration, we also need to illustrate the myriad options available in postsecondary education — four-year degrees, two-year degrees, career and technical education — to ensure students are aware of the many paths they can take to land a sustainable career in a field well-suited to their interests and abilities.

Add to this an ROI calculator to help students determine the return on investment of their proposed education based on the total cost of the education and the earning potential of their major, and you’ve got students looking at the future with eyes wide open. A simulation that teaches financial basics through real-life scenarios can help bring the elements to life.

In addition to starting the dialogue earlier, we need to promote responsible borrowing and financial stewardship by integrating technology into offerings to improve the customer experience. Today’s students don’t lack information, but the tools available don’t meet them where they are: online and on their phones. That’s why we envision a holistic process that involves loan counseling before, during, and after borrowing with online content, call center access and regular text message notifications; electronic loan origination and disbursement; streamlined repayment tools with a user-friendly loan consolidation option; and a payment aggregator allowing borrowers to compile all their loans into one tool to manage payments.

Additionally, a pay-for-performance approach aligning students’ academic activities with their loan repayments and reducing their loan balances based on factors like good grades, course completion and retention will go a long way toward moving students to the repayment frame of mind before their loans come due. And, if life circumstances derail a borrower’s repayment, we must provide free assistance and counseling to student borrowers and parents through high-touch and high-tech interactions to get them back on track.

It is beyond time to bring modern, streamlined tools to a financial aid experience that for too long has been bureaucratic, confusing and expensive. Drawing on our decades of experience as a student loan guarantor, we’re combining that front-line expertise with investments in innovative programs and offerings that advance good financial citizenship and give students the tools they need to make informed choices throughout their lifetimes — as they plan for higher education, as they repay the loans that make their education possible and as they pursue lifelong learning.

By extending the process of preparing students for college and enhancing financial literacy across the education lifecycle, students and families will have a better opportunity for success at school, in their career and, ultimately, in life.

Jeremy J. Wheaton is the president and CEO of ECMC Group, where he and a team of talented experts create and execute strategic initiatives to help students succeed through programs promoting financial education, college access and college completion.