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Archive for Thursday, August 25, 2005

College graduates tend to lack financial common sense

August 25, 2005

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My grandmother, Big Mama, used to say you can have all the book learning in the world, but if you don't have any common sense, you'll still have trouble in life.

I would like to expand on Big Mama's observation. If don't have financial common sense, all the book learning in the world won't keep you from having money troubles.

Every week I get mail from educated folks who are deep in debt from bad decisions that could have been avoided had they received a better financial education while they were getting all that other book learning.

That's why I'm always delighted to read news releases from Smith College's Women and Financial Independence program. The most recent announcement was about a credit card survey. I'll get to the survey results in a bit, but I first wanted to comment on Smith's efforts to teach its students how to handle their personal business.

Smith College, an all-women's school in Northampton, Mass., began offering a comprehensive financial education program to its undergraduates in 2001. Funded with $2.5 million in seed money from Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Smith alumna and trustee Ann Kaplan, the program features a series of personal finance workshops and non-credit courses. The financial literacy program - WFI for short - also operates a drop-in center, where students can bring their financial questions to members of the school's economics faculty and trained interns.

I particularly like the "From Backpack to Briefcase" seminar Smith offers to graduating seniors.

It's a financial boot camp - a last attempt - to give seniors the basics of what they'll need to know about managing their income, investments and debt.

That brings me back to the credit card survey results. Throughout a three-month period, WFI asked about 700 undergraduate, graduate and professional school students - both male and female - about their credit card habits. Participants were selected randomly and surveyed electronically. In that survey, funded by OppenheimerFunds, WFI found that 23 percent of respondents use credit cards to pay for tuition and fees, and 52 percent use credit for textbooks and school supplies.

"Using a credit card to pay for tuition, books and fees would not be a bad idea if, at the end of the month, the student paid the debt off," said Mahnaz Mahdavi, Smith College professor of economics and director of WFI.

Financial lessons

What's happening instead is that many of the students who pay for their tuition, books, and fees with a credit card end up carrying a balance of more than $5,000.

With interest rates on student loans so low, "this is not the best way to pay for college," Mahdavi said.

More students in the survey had credit card debt than had student loans - 65 percent compared to 48 percent. Sixty-five percent of the students with credit cards had two or more cards. Students owed an average $2,400 on their credit cards. Fourteen percent owed more than $5,000 on their cards.

There were other results of the survey that concerned Mahdavi.

For instance, more than 50 percent of the students surveyed charged their cards to the limit some or most of the time. More than half of respondents (58 percent) said that they never pay balances in full or pay in full less than half of the time. The survey also found that a significant percentage of the respondents (31 percent) had paid their credit card bill at least one month late.

Maxing out your credit card and failing to pay the bill on time are the two leading ways to lower your credit score. The lower your credit score, the more you have to pay for credit in the future.

"College-age students don't always think about the long-term implications of how making a credit card purchase today can impact purchasing a home, paying off student loans or meeting financial goals in the future," said Lauren Coulston, assistant vice president, advocacy and training manager for OppenheimerFunds.

'Students lack knowledge'

Mahdavi also noted that female and male students used credit cards differently. In possession of more credit cards, women were more likely than men to have debt over $5,000, pay late, and not pay their balances in full.

"When it comes to credit cards and personal finance in general, students lack knowledge," Mahdavi said. "Institutions of higher education need to pay attention to the critical area of financial education."

It's amazing to me the amount of debt students are willing to rack up to get a college education and yet they still graduate with a "F" in personal finance.

Part of the reason WFI conducted the credit card study is to figure out what else they could be teaching their students to help them steer clear of debt trouble. It's the college's effort to teach some financial common sense.

The Smith program should be emulated all over the country. And those colleges that don't have a similar financial literacy program aren't giving students their money's worth.

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