Financial Wellness Center Teaches Dollars and Sense

Illustration of student savings plan and jars (credit: Sasha Heye, design, class of 2022)

Every fall on campuses across the country, a new crop of students experiences the exhilaration of being on their own, often for the first time in their lives. Right off the bat, they encounter a battery of information tables loaded with free stuff. Some of those freebies come with expensive strings, as Gilbert Rogers learned the hard way.

Rogers is an expert on personal finance now, but as a first-generation, first-year student at Western Kentucky University, he was an easy mark for banks handing out T-shirts. “All you had to do was sign up for a credit card,” he says. “Pretty soon I am walking around campus with four or five shirts, not thinking about what it will mean when all these credit cards arrive in the mail.”

Gilbert RogersAs director of the University of Oregon’s new Financial Wellness Center, Rogers is developing the student financial literacy program he wishes had existed when he naively collected those “free” shirts. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, from working in the US Army’s financial counseling program at Fort Knox to launching a financial literacy program at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he quickly became known as a rising star in the financial wellness world.

“Students are investing both their time and energy to attain their degrees,” says Rogers, whose doctoral dissertation analyzed the need for financial literacy programs. “As they take on more and more debt, universities need to help them make an easier transition to the real world after graduation. The Financial Wellness Center enables the investment in their education to start paying off much earlier in life.”

Rogers says what made it worthwhile for him to move his family from Oklahoma to Oregon during a pandemic is the vision for a culture of financial wellness at the UO, a vision made possible by a gift from Nancy and Dave Petrone, BS ’66 (economics), MBA ’68 (business environment).

“We are reaching students by getting into the spaces where they are, explaining how financial literacy will help them all their lives,” Rogers says. “The support from the Petrones allows us to do this the right way.”

In contrast to schools that offer only a simple website with tips and tricks for managing money, the UO center provides peer financial coaches, delivers workshops to student and campus organizations, and taps into faculty and alumni expertise in tax planning, investing, and even car buying. The center, a joint project of the Lundquist College of Business and the Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships, expands on its predecessor, Financial Flight Plan. 

Dave Petrone says the couple’s gift comes from noticing over the years that many young people struggle with financial literacy.

“If I could come up with one set of lessons that students should get before earning their diplomas, so that they can leave the university ready to succeed and take care of themselves, this is it,” says the former Wells Fargo senior vice president.

Rogers says the UO program is special because the Petrones’ gift provides funds to pay a large, diverse team of student coaches. “Most universities that I have seen offer students volunteer financial coaching positions,” he says. “Recruiting coaches from a wide variety of academic majors, personal backgrounds, and interests will help us reach more students.”

Still, he leaves nothing to chance. Of the 20 students working as coaches, four were chosen for their social media and design skills. They operate as an in-house marketing agency.

“We look forward to holding in-person meetings, but for now we are engaging students in a virtual environment,” Rogers says. “Getting people to want to come to another Zoom event is challenging.”

Angel Escorcia-NuñezAngel Escorcia-Nuñez, a sophomore from Albany majoring in journalism and communication, is glad he made the effort to add one more Zoom to his schedule, a one-on-one with a peer coach. Although he has PathwayOregon and Diversity Excellence scholarships, he ranks financial worries among his greatest sources of stress.

“I want to learn how to be smart with my money,” he says. “I found out the main thing is to address your financial situation, whether you are having issues or doing well, and reach out for help when you are ready for future steps, such as investing.”

Carly Kleefeld, of Fair Oaks, California, is running track for the Ducks and working as a peer coach while she earns a master’s in prevention science, a College of Education program focused on interventions to help children and families. “I love our budgeting worksheet,” she says. “That’s my favorite resource because when it’s all written down, students can see how much they will save by cutting things out.”

Kleefeld speaks from experience. It was only after filling out the worksheet during training that she realized canceling her unused Hulu account would save $12 a month. “I didn’t even remember I had it,” she says. Her training, combined with her paycheck, is already easing her anxiety about making ends meet.

Peer coach Alexandra Webster, a business major from Houston, says the students she counsels who report feeling the most stress have taken out loans that began charging interest the minute they signed on the dotted line.Alexandra Webster

“We can help them find ways to manage monthly payments, so this interest won’t pile up while they are in school,” she says. “But I hope other students will contact us before they take out loans, so we can talk them through all their options, including loans that do not accumulate interest until after graduation. Now that I have learned so much from my training, I feel like I can have a better future for myself and my family without money problems down the line.”

For his part, Rogers gets up every morning focused on helping more students avoid missteps, from paying a premium for a loan to risking their future credit rating for a T-shirt.

“No one talks to students about money management unless they’re lucky enough to have financially savvy parents,” he says. “This is an area where a mistake early on can impact your life a lot.”

By Melody Ward Leslie, BA ’79 (humanities), a staff writer for University Communications

GILBERT ROGERS'S TOP FIVE FINANCIAL TIPS

1. Your budget is your BFF: Budgets are the foundation for money management and by far the most important skill for students to master.

2. Build your credit while in college: By taking a few easy steps to graduate with a higher credit score, students can realize significant savings down the line.

3. Protect your identity: Students need to monitor their credit reports for fraud and protect their online accounts by setting up multifactor authentication.

4. Understand your current loan situation: Students should know their current loan balances and how much they will owe after graduation.

5. Invest in yourself: Attend financial education workshops and seminars. Read, listen to podcasts, and explore investing.