Increasing Financial Literacy in Students: Credit Union of Texas Opens SMART Branch

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Financial literacy is important for everyone, but there is a definite benefit and importance to teaching financial education at a young age. Whereas adults often need to unlearn poor spending and money management and may already have significant amounts of debt with high-interest rates, students usually haven’t had a chance to form a relationship with money and are able to build a foundation for responsible habits.

Studies prove that teenagers who are financially literate before college will make smarter choices and develop healthier money traits than those who aren’t. In fact, young adults who had state-mandated personal finance courses in high school are less likely to borrow high-interest loans than those who weren’t required to take the courses, according to FINRA Investor Education Foundation.

Lower interest rates can mean a world of difference in student loan repayments and can make the overall cost of a college education much lower. These smart choices will follow them after college as well, determining where they spend their money, whether or not they create a budget, and how much they choose to save (which will increase their ease in buying a house and saving for retirement).

But despite the importance of financial education for students, many feel that reaching and connecting with younger generations is a challenge, to say the least. Engaging them enough to teach them about finances can seem impossible. Just ask Gen Z’er and founder of FinLit app Zogo, Bolun Li how his class received their “financial education.”

But one credit union in Texas was up to the task.

The Credit Union of Texas’s SMART Branch

The Credit Union of Texas (CUTX), located in Dallas-Fort Worth, recognized the significant gap in financial literacy among young people and decided to make a difference. In an effort to bring financial education to students, they connected with leaders of local high schools, creating partnerships through which they could collaborate to tackle the issue at hand. Through their motivation to increase financial literacy among youths, the credit union and its partners came up with the idea to open branches within local high schools and let the students take the reins.

These “SMART” (Servant leadership, Motivation, Active learning, Reasoning, and Technology) Branches are run by juniors and seniors, with one credit union staff member to supervise. The first, located in Allen High School in Dallas-Fort Worth, was opened back in August 2021, the success of which inspired the creation of a second branch merely a year later, which opened on January 10th, 2022, at Little Elm High School of Little Elm, Texas.

“After witnessing firsthand the positive impact of the Allen High School SMART Branch on students’ financial literacy skills, confidence, and knowledge of potential future career paths, we knew it was the right time to partner with other schools and provide this same opportunity to as many students as possible,” said Eric Pointer, President and CEO for CUTX. “As a long-term community partner, Little Elm is a great fit for our next SMART Branch, and this opening is another step in growing our partnership and continuing to give back to the communities we serve by empowering students and providing essential skills like financial literacy.”

Finding and training student employees

While you might expect a student-run branch to be limited in its abilities when compared to a standard branch or vary in its methods, the SMART Branches operate as a traditional credit union branch would and offer all the same services. Furthermore, the student employees need to apply and be trained in the same way as credit union staff. Students interested in joining the credit union as a teller, marketer, or bank manager must meet certain criteria before being considered.

First, they must be junior and senior students who convey an interest in or future study of business or marketing. Once the student expresses an interest in working for the credit union, their academic records, dedication to volunteerism, teacher recommendations, and public speaking skills are all considered. From there, they must interview for their position of choice. Once they are selected for a position, they undergo training.

The training was broken down into two segments: learning the basics of finance and learning the basics of banking. For the former, each student employee completed three days of intensive banking, marketing, and financial literacy training. For the latter, student employees were trained in a three-week course exposing them to all the training new branch employees typically receive.

Running the branch

Once the students were trained, they were able to begin working with members. Pointer noted that by design, the credit union experience is no different in a SMART Branch. The student employees have access to the same technology found in all CUTX branches, and thanks to their training, they are able to provide all the standard products and services, including checking and savings accounts and auto loans. However, the manager is always nearby to offer help, instruct, and supervise.

In addition, both the Little Elm and Allen SMART Branches offer member programs, such as the “Pay for Grades” initiative. The semi-annual program is designed to reward students who receive excellent report cards with deposit funds ($25 for each A and $5 for each B) into their accounts.

The branches are also easily accessible to students, staff, and members of the community. For student and faculty convenience, they are typically placed in high-traffic areas on campus, but the Little Elm High School branch also has an exterior door providing access to members of the community. Members also have easy access to an Interactive Teller Machine (ITM) on-site.

According to Pointer, since opening the Little Elm SMART Branch, the credit union has “received significant amounts of positive feedback from their members and community, who are now utilizing this location at the high school as their primary branch.”

However, as only a handful of students are able to work in the physical branches, the Credit Union of Texas and its partners were determined to encourage financial literacy among the majority of the school, even if it was outside the branch itself.

Students helping students

In order to achieve widespread financial literacy in the school, CUTX developed a financial literacy program that involves student employees of the branch acting as financial literacy coaches to their classmates. In preparing for their presentations, students employees are provided with additional education on the topics, including money management, loans, credit, investing, and more. CUTX permanent employees also provide informative sessions on various topics, including home equity loans, refinancing, and auto loans to Little Elm High School faculty and staff.

The benefit of this program is that not only is financial education being provided to a wider range of students, but by placing the student in charge of the education, they allow them to use methods that suit their classmates and generation best. These students best know how to engage their peers and find ways to impart the information to them in a lasting and impactful way.

“Students are encouraged to bring their creativity and passion to these presentations and it’s contagious!” Pointer commented. “I always make it a point to drop in on the student training. They ask thoughtful questions and take full advantage of the unique opportunity they’ve been afforded. We’ve seen tremendous growth in confidence, professionalism, and leadership in the students we’ve worked with. Some have even decided to pursue careers in the financial industry because of their experience!”

Pointer went on to note that since the opening of the SMART Branch at Little Elm High School three months ago, the credit union has delivered financial literacy presentations to over 700 students, including the entire senior class. In the coming years, thousands of students will have the opportunity to receive this education and become financially literate.

Building a future of strong financial literacy

As for students who partake in the program, their success does not stop when the school year ends, or even after they graduate. Juniors are eligible for re-hiring the following year, and every student employee receives a $1,000 scholarship for future education-related needs each year they are employed with the branch. Furthermore, the credit union will consider all student employees as potential future hires for permanent careers.

The credit union noted that in the future, they’re looking to open more SMART Branches in schools, to continue to bring financial education to high schoolers, but noted that finding the right partner is the key to a successful program.

Dr. Elizabeth Priddy, principal of Little Elm High School, offered some words of wisdom for other high schools or credit unions considering a similar program. “Offering our students experiences and opportunities to learn beyond the classroom has always been a point of pride for Little Elm High School,” she stated. “By partnering with CUTX on the new SMART Branch, we are continuing this tradition and providing our students with a unique financial literacy program and real-world skills that will be utilized well into the future.”

Providing financial literacy education to high schoolers can not only teach them responsible money habits but can also shape their relationship with money for the rest of their lives. While it’s clear tired methods such as marketing ploys disguised as personal finance information sessions are not effective, new programs such as the SMART Branch might be key to connecting with students. What methods is your credit union using to connect with teens?

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