Educational institutions are quickly coming to the understanding that a student’s wellness affects their ability to graduate from college, which in turn impacts the bottom line of colleges and universities. 

A recent study by the Stanford Center on Longevity, the Sightlines Project shows that wellness is more than just physical health—it also includes social engagement and financial security.1

More importantly, when one area isn’t healthy, wellness as a whole is affected. When students are financially unwell, they are more likely to be physically and socially unwell, leading to higher dropout rates2, lower grades3 and more mental health issues.4

Unfortunately, financial stress is rampant among college students. Several recent studies5 show that:

  • Nearly three-quarters of college students suffer from financial stress
  • 59.8 percent fear that they will not be able to pay their tuition
  • 50.5 percent worry that they will not be able to pay their monthly bills

Part of the reason for this stress is that students come to college without a good grasp of personal finance:

  • The 2018 Survey of the States: Economic and Personal Finance Education in Our Nation’s Schools found that only one-third of states require high school students to take a personal finance course.6
  • This lack of education shows—only 11 percent of college students could correctly answer a four-question quiz about loan interest and repayment.7 

However, according to the Sallie Mae’s Majoring in Money Report 2019, students want to learn. Eighty-four percent of students say they want to learn more about personal financial management.7

Because of the student loan crisis, the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission now recommends that “institutions of higher education require mandatory financial literacy courses.”8

Despite the need, even when an educational institution offers a financial wellness program to students, it often remains underutilized.

There are many reasons why your students may be saying they want to learn about personal finances but not following through. Here are the most likely reasons.

Your Program Doesn’t Match Their Needs  

The Sallie Mae report asked students what personal finance topics they were most interested in. These included:

  • Saving strategies - 38 percent
  • Budgeting - 35 percent
  • Student loan repayment options - 33 percent
  • Paying for college or grad school options - 33 percent
  • Credit reports and credit scores - 30 percent
  • Investment strategies - 29 percent
  • Retirement and future financial planning - 27 percent
  • Benefits and pitfalls of borrowing and using credit - 22 percent
  • Debt reduction strategies - 21 percent

The best way to determine what your students want is to ask. If you already have a program in place, a survey can help you know what topics to add to appeal to your student population.

For more information on creating an effective needs assessment survey, read our report on “How to Develop a Student Financial Wellness Survey."

Students Overestimate Their Understanding

Even though the Sallie Mae survey found that 89 percent of college students could not pass their simple finance quiz, students had a different assessment of their knowledge:

  • Students who rated themselves with poor skills were actually more likely to answer all four questions correctly compared to those who felt they had excellent skills (19 percent versus 12 percent).
  • Students who rated themselves with excellent skills were most likely to answer two quiz questions correctly compared to those who felt they had poor skills (41 percent versus 22 percent).

This phenomena of believing you know more about a topic than you actually do is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.9 

When students estimate their financial knowledge, they likely do so without considering all of the topics they do not understand, leading to an inflated estimation of their abilities.

Students Wait Until a Need Arises

A major employee survey found that employees do not seek financial education until a need arises.10

Although there is no similar study for college students, it is quite probable that students have the same bias.

If so, then students are most likely to seek information when:

  • Making important financial decisions, like taking out a student loan or buying a car
  • Enduring a financial crisis, such as the inability to pay tuition or facing eviction
  • Experiencing a life event such as graduation or marriage

This means that your financial wellness program must be flexible enough to allow students to interact on their own schedule and individualized enough to offer students information based on their specific needs.

Incentives to Engage

Students are busy—busy learning, busy studying, and busy socializing. Adding a new behavior, like learning and practicing financial responsibility, takes time and motivation.

Because they don’t have enough experience to understand how financial responsibility will benefit them, they may need a tangible benefit to get started.

In a case study, iGrad found that when students were given incentives for completing specific program requirements:

  • Monthly sessions activated increased
  • Monthly page views increased
  • Average session time increased

If your financial wellness program does not offer enticing incentives to your students, then initial engagement in the program could be low.

Consider providing benefits-based incentives such as gift cards or points to redeem for prizes to students who complete certain financial wellness program tasks.

You may also provide outcomes-based incentives for students who make financial behavioral changes, such as creating a budget or balancing their checkbook monthly. 

For more on this topic, check out our report on “Providing Incentives to Improve Student Financial Literacy.”


According to Anadea Inc., gamification makes learning more enjoyable, thus increasing a student’s likelihood of using the program again.11

Additionally, since games break down large tasks into smaller ones and provide rewards for progress, gamification provides a sense of victory.

It is no wonder that studies show that gamification:

  • Increases participation by 100 percent or more12
  • Is found to be more engaging by 80 percent of students13
  • Is more motivating to students (67 percent) than traditional course materials14

If you have low student engagement, consider adding some of the following gamification elements to your financial wellness program:

  • Achievements
  • Badges
  • Bonuses
  • Certificates
  • Challenges
  • Countdowns
  • Leaderboards
  • Loss prevention
  • Points
  • Unlocking of new assignments

Remember, gamification won’t get students to try out your financial wellness program, but it will keep them coming back. That’s why incentives and gamification go hand in hand.

Compelling Components

If you cannot offer compelling incentives, you can increase participation through compelling program components. For example, iGrad offers "Your Money Personality," a financial personality assessment.

Students find this assessment very compelling because it explains their financial behaviors and emotions—both the strengths and challenges.

They learn actionable steps to take to help them become more balanced in their approach to money. For iGrad, this assessment has been proven a key factor in increasing student engagement.

There are several reasons students enjoy an assessment component. Students like to:

Talk about themselves: A Harvard study shows that people of all ages produce “feel good” hormones whenever they get the chance to talk about themselves.15

When taking an assessment, students disclose information about themselves, which triggers the same response as if talking to someone.

Learn about themselves: The self-help industry is a huge business, with projections of growth to $13.2 billion by 2022.16

Millennials are driving this change and are known as the self-help generation.

A financial assessment is the first self-help step for a student making important changes and meeting new goals.  

Belong to a group: The social identity theory states that people create categories in order to strengthen bonds with others and increase self-identity.17

When taking a financial assessment, students learn of their financial personality and can immediately identify with others who view money in the same way.  

Other compelling components to consider include:

  • Interactive tools
  • Live financial counselors
  • Peer-to-peer tools
  • Student loan snapshot

Providing a financial wellness program to your students can help them achieve their financial goals, as well as increase the college or university’s financial health—but only if they use the program.

If you have low engagement, considering these factors and making the appropriate changes can help increase participation.


Download our full guide on Best Practices for a Campus-Wide Financial Literacy Initiative




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