MISSOULA – Julie Heaton always keeps a box of tissues at the ready. When you’re counseling people on how to pay for the biggest investment of their life, or running through the fees and charges included on the tuition bill, there are inevitable waterworks.
“It’s kind of like being at the grocery store,” said Heaton, director of the University of Montana Financial Education Program. “But at the store, you know all of the items you’re paying for and how much they cost. We don’t put a sticker price on higher education. You get to the checkout, and you have little idea what it’s going to ultimately cost. For many students, we’re the checkout counter. It can be a very emotional conversation.”
Providing clarity and support to UM students, employees and alumni when it comes to sorting through the financial maze of paying for a post-secondary education is at the heart of UM’s Financial Education Program.
Housed in the UM Office for Student Success, the program regularly is noted as one of the top 50 Best College Financial Literacy Programs in the country, embodying a successful model that provides robust financial education and services at no cost. Funded by the Montana Office of Commissioner of Higher Education, the program has existed at UM since 2013.
To empower the University community and make informed financial choices, the program provides information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, advising students on financial choices (sometimes that looks like discussing the cons and pros of a trip to Europe vs. paying down credit card debt), explaining the intricacies of student loan repayment to UM seniors ready to graduate, or providing support to UM employees applying for loan forgiveness programs.
Heaton, who arrived at UM less than two years ago comes from experience in the nonprofit world helping victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse rebuild their lives financially. She said her experience helping women develop self-empowerment through finances directly translates to students educating themselves on personal finance.
“We’re not a financial planning firm or wealth management service,” she said. “Our services are about personal finances and providing the information for people to make the best choices according to their goals.”
Last year, the program reached more than 3,000 students, served 420 individual appointments and reached more than 400 viewers with online workshops.
And the demand for services is increasing.
A financial literacy base does not exist for most Americans and especially students entering higher education for the first time, Heaton said.
Financial experts estimate that about 70% of U.S. students take out loans to pay for college – a number accurately reflected at UM where about 61% of first-time, full-time students borrow money. The average indebtedness for a UM student hovers around $23,000.
About one-third of UM undergraduates are first-generation college students or from low-income households, a demographic that largely finances college. Across the nation, minority students represent the largest portion of borrowers.
“What’s happening financially on college campuses is an awareness of the true cost of college truly affecting student retention and overall success,” Heaton said. “It’s important for us to have more realistic conversations about this and normalize access for support and education.”
As Heaton will attest, in addition to decades of research, possessing a college degree leads to larger overall earnings, career longevity and even greater amounts of health and happiness. Still, the large majority U.S. students arrive on college campuses with little or no financial preparation.
This year, Heaton secured a state-funded grant to host “FAFSA Nights” at local high schools to ready them for college. The events explain how to fill out the FAFSA form, what tuition and fees include and realistic budget models for students.
Zane Segal, a UM freshman from Bozeman, arrived in Heaton’s office in August after trouble understanding where, exactly, to sign on the FASA form so that he could secure federal funds in time to pay for classes.
“It’s a really tricky form that can be incredibly confusing, especially for someone who is approaching it for the first time,” Segal said. “Julie helped me understand the form, and I actually was able to fill it out myself correctly for the second semester. FAFSA no longer completely stresses me out.”
Segal said before he attended college, his peer group in high school wasn’t talking much about the FAFSA or how to pay for college, something he said now he “wishes he had paid more attention to and sought-out the resources.” He plans to use the financial education office throughout his time on campus.
Brian French, executive director of UM’s Office for Student Success, said it was a purposeful decision to include the Financial Education Program in the office that supports students academically.
“Placing financial education into the hub of academic support services is part of our holistic student success network,” French said. “A student is more likely to return for advising support, tutoring or get involved in various campus opportunities if they leave here with a sense of confidence and awareness. Often, their first entry point in connecting with our campus is through their interest in the Financial Education Program.”
French said keeping students connected to campus, while providing them with information that can make them feel more responsible, can reflect in strong retention rates.
“We want students to feel an authentic connection to our place and our people and to feel like they’re at home in the UM family,” French said. “For us in OSS, that means supporting them with tutoring and advising and helping them navigate the uncomfortable but necessary conversations of how to pay for college and do it wisely.”
Heaton and Andrea Janssen, Financial Education Program coordinator, began a series of hourlong workshops this year for the UM community called “Thrifty Thursdays.” The series includes workshops on repaying student debt, traveling and getting married on a budget. The program’s website even has a tab on “adulting,” which includes information on job searching, matching a salary with a cost of living and tips on searching for insurance.
When UM alumna Stephanie Maltarich was preparing to graduate from the master’s program in environmental studies and marry her partner, who also recently earned a master’s degree and was left with heavy student loans, she sought support for understanding the best way to attack student debt as a newly married couple.
“The help we received from the financial program was invaluable,” Maltarich said. “I felt like I was never asking a dumb question; it felt like I was talking to a friend. Julie was able walk us through our accounts and look at our loans in detail, so that we had an accurate picture of the best repayment plan and getting on track to repayment.”
Heaton said the larger picture is about removing barriers to knowledge.
“Ultimately, we want to be a tool for creating greater social equity,” Heaton said. “We have to have more realistic conversations about how to finance higher education and be more transparent about that process so that people can lead happy, successful lives.”
For more information on UM’s FEP program, visit https://www.umt.edu/financial-education/ or call 406-243-2800.
Jenny Lavey, UM News Service
Contact: Julie Heaton, director, UM Financial Education Program director, 406-243-5507, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.