Although it is not surprising to find that some college students are stressed about money, the number of students who suffer may be shocking.

An Ohio State University study found that nearly three-quarters of college students suffer from financial stress.1

When combined with statistics from the Hungry and Homeless College Report2, the top financial stressors are:

  • Fear of not meeting tuition expenses – 59.8 percent
  • Fear of not meeting monthly expenses – 50.5 percent
  • Housing insecurity (cannot pay rent, utilities, or have unstable living arrangements) – 50 percent
  • Food insecurity (cannot buy nutritious food or persistently hungry) – between 20 and 40 percent
  • Homelessness – 13 percent

When students experience this kind of financial stress, they are more likely to drop out, which negatively impacts their earning potential and causes a decline in enrollment for educational institutions. 

Finding the Right Program

However, not all student financial wellness programs are created equal. The program your institution offers should motivate students to make financial behavior changes, which only happens with high engagement.

This is important because, as a May 2018 iGrad analysis found, there is a direct link between engagement and higher test scores. More importantly, there is a direct link between higher scores and stronger financial wellness.

Thankfully, according to an American Institute of Certified Public Accountants survey, most students consider personal financial management an important skill.3

However, only 23 percent actually seek information to improve their financial management skills.  

If this is the case, what can you do to engage your students in your institution’s financial wellness program?

And how can you measure that engagement?

How to Engage Students

Unlike the movie “Field of Dreams,” you cannot simply build a student financial wellness program and expect students to flock to it. Instead, you have to actively encourage participation.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Needs assessment: It is important to provide a program that addresses the needs of your students. If it doesn’t, they will not take the time out of their busy schedule to engage. Starting with a needs assessment allows you to understand student needs and find a program to meet these needs.
  • Communicate: Your students will not use a program if they do not know about it. A great way to communicate about the plan with students is to use current channels such as emails, texts, and social media campaigns to explain what the program is, how they can participate, and why the program is worth their time.
  • Enthusiasm: Show enthusiasm for the program across all departments on campus from financial aid to student health. When students see that everyone is excited about financial wellness, they are more likely to join in.
  • Incentivize: Students need a reason to participate, so consider offering incentives. You can either provide money or points toward prizes for completing certain financial wellness plan requirements such as enrolling or finishing modules, or for achieving an outcome, such as saving a specific amount of money or keeping debt below a certain percentage.
  • Gamify the program: Your students have lived their entire lives playing games. A Pew poll found that 67 percent of those between 18 and 29 play video games, and that number gets larger for those soon to be entering college.4 Adding game elements to your financial wellness program will encourage more participation among these age groups. A University of Colorado study found that both learning and retention increased when adding such things as badges, certificates, points, and challenges.5
  • Make it interesting: Students do not want to spend their time hearing more lectures, so make sure your financial wellness program has compelling components. Consider such things as interactive tools, peer-to-peer tools, a compelling financial behavior assessment, and live counselors.

Improve Engagement by Measuring It 

More and more educational institutions are offering student financial wellness programs.

However, once the program is in place, many fail to see how it is performing.

If you don’t measure student engagement, you cannot know how to improve the program, thus improving the lives of your students.

Here are the top three metrics to consider for measuring student engagement:

Utilization rate: The percentage of the student population that uses your financial wellness program during a 12-month period.

Although this is an easy measurement to determine, it doesn’t take into account several variables. For instance:

  • Have students been made aware of the financial wellness program?
  • Do you offer incentives to use the program? Are these incentives what students find compelling?
  • Are program components really addressing your student’s needs?

If you are interested in increasing your utilization rate, try reading “5 Strategies to Help Increase Financial Literacy Program Participation.”

180-day return login rate: The number of students who return to the financial wellness program during a 180-day period after registration.

You can determine both the percentage of users who return, as well as the average number of times students come back.

iGrad suggests that if your program does not have at least a 50 percent return login rate, then something is wrong.

Qualitative feedback: Rather than number-based, this type of feedback helps you determine how your students feel about the financial wellness program through open-ended questions.

You can get this type of feedback by:

  • Giving open-ended surveys
  • Creating focus groups
  • Reviewing questions sent to customer support concerning the program
  • Data analysis
  • Collecting engagement information is a great first step, but is of no value unless you analyze it.

Consider such questions as this:

  • What do students' answers suggest about our financial wellness program?
  • What do students' answers suggest about the fit between students’ needs and program offerings?
  • What do students' answers suggest about student satisfaction with the program?

Also examine:

  • Cross-sections of student engagement, including age, parental income, major, year in school, etc. This may help you discover insights into specific segments of your student population.
  • The data in context: How old is your student financial wellness program? Do you have a strong marketing plan in place? What time of the year did you collect the information—early in the semester or later? Always look at recent events to get a clearer understanding of what the data might indicate.

Finally, it is time to make changes to your student financial wellness program based on the engagement data collected.

For instance, iGrad discovered that student engagement increases when a program has more gamification.

If your program lacks in this area, adding game components could be a solution.

It is important to increase student engagement. Without participation, the student financial wellness program will not benefit your students or your educational institution. 


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