‘Unconquered by Debt’ teaches students financial literacy

Flipping through the average New York Times or Wall Street Journal news story, one would think that talk of student debt was actually talk of cattle. Students are “harnessed”, “saddled”, “weighed down”, “burdened” and “chained” by the painful loans we are supposed to get in college. And in a sense, the verbiage is not inaccurate. Who could deny the excessive costs we incur to educate ourselves for “bright futures”?

Perhaps all of this talk is an unwelcome introduction to our financial lives, but one we all have to experience eventually. Many more decisions and choices await you. Unconquered by Debt, a financial literacy program offered by the Gus A. Stavros Center, provides such guidance.

Driving past Bellamy earlier this week, I saw a rather pretty tent pitched in front of the green median strip that separates the driveway. Its frontispiece showed the title of the program, and behind it stood several student ambassadors conversing freely with curious students. After doing some research, I was surprised to learn of the program Stavros had organized.

What was once the brainchild of economics professor Dr. Joe Calhoun has grown into a campus-wide outreach group since its founding in 2019. An extension of its ECO 3041 personal finance course, UCB offers free online and in-person workshops to educate students on how, when and why to think smart about their future finances. For those of us who attended Enterprise Village or Finance Park in elementary school, it feels like a post-secondary version.

UCB offers education from college to coffin. Topics range from insurance principles and mutual funds to spending, budgeting and buying bonds. Intrigued by the incentive for free online education, I took a few of the thirty-three modules listed in the digital course. The layout is very simple and the explanations extremely understandable. Always wisely, Dr. Calhoun simply broke down the loan varieties and patiently discussed the taxation process – the nasty bogeyman of all demographics. At the end of the lectures, students can access further reading in the bibliography and apply newly acquired knowledge in short dialogue scenarios at the bottom of the page.

A feature of the organization is weekly workshops and regular five-day advertising outside busy buildings. These events are organized in collaboration with several groups on campus, with remarkable success. In the spring of 2022 alone, more than five hundred students attended these free workshops and countless more were exposed to the benefits of the program through the booths.

None of UCB’s accomplishments would have been possible without the passionate work of qualified and certified peer mentors. Intensively trained and often graduating from the program, these counselors work regularly to draw attention to a wise educational investment.

Sophomore business administration student Zac Zweifel became a peer mentor for the program after attending some of its workshops. “They were ready to help me and teach me as much as I was ready to share,” Zweifel said. His enthusiasm for his role is evident, as is his recognition of the seriousness of early financial education. In addition to learning the ABCs or 123 crash courses in economics, “making balanced, informed, wealth-creating choices is the ultimate goal for students.”

Finding myself oblivious to the details but vaguely familiar with the general decisions I will encounter, I consciously asked what type of student is UCB’s target. “The model student is any student. Everyone will make the same financial choices in life,” Zweifel said, adding that the difference is between “making good or bad choices.”

At a time when public debate seems obsessed with the student debt crisis, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. From now on, students can enjoy greater independence, but no freedom comes without a cost – or many costs. If finances are an unavoidable obligation, knowledge of them is incumbent on each of us. Rather than languishing in the confusing hodgepodge of numbers and contracts, perhaps an early interface will give us all a better head start in planning our future. And “Unconquered by Debt”, for its honest mission and meritorious staff, shows us the next and best step forward.

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John A. Bogar