Student-Run Branches Are as Diverse as Students They Serve
Student-run credit union branches allow interns to gain hands-on experience while providing their peers and school staff with convenient access to financial services. According to the NCUA, 339 federally insured credit unions reported they have in-school branches as of August.
These in-school branches tend to share some common features. The interns, typically juniors and seniors, are usually selected from a banking class through a resume and interview process and receive training from the credit union. Additionally, the branches are generally open during school lunch hours and a teacher and credit union employee are always present to supervise the interns, who do not have access to account balances or transaction histories.
But beyond those basic traits, the branch's operation often depends on the environment in which it is housed.
"We've learned that every school is different," said Juli Lewis, youth marketing manager at Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Fla. "What works at one school might not work at another, so the program has to be flexible."
Lewis speaks from extensive experience-her credit union has 23 high school branches in five counties. The oldest one opened in 2002 in the Academy of Finance at Brandon High School in Brandon, Fla., and the newest opened in early November at Hernando High School in Brooksville, Fla.
The credit union has gleaned another important piece of insight during its heavy involvement with in-school branches.
"We've also learned to keep it truly student-run because the students are the ones who know what's going to attract the other students," Lewis said.
Ten to 15 interns work at each of the branches, which run promotions such as member appreciation days that include treats like barbecues, popcorn or cookies. Another idea is "scholar dollar" drawings, which give students who get on the honor roll a chance to win a $25 deposit into their account.
To celebrate International Credit Union Week, Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore offered students at the National Academy Foundation High School an MP3 player for signing up with the credit union. The campaign resulted in eight new accounts opened at the in-school branch.
Like Lewis, Stu Ramsey understands that in-school branches come in many shapes and sizes. Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union in Clarksville, Tenn., of which he is CEO, recently opened two student-run branches, one in half of a classroom and the other in what used to be the ? la carte section of the lunchroom.
Early in the process, the credit union contacted other CUs with student-run branches to find out what it takes to launch one. Ramsey discovered that "it tends to be driven by the school you're in and the relationship you build with the principal and teacher."
"The key is to provide enough planning time up front," he added.
Over the summer, the credit union sent letters to all the parents letting them know the branch was coming and quite a few students came in advance to open accounts.
"We had a fair amount of activity before the school year started," Ramsey said.
However, the undertaking is not without challenges. The two high schools Fort Campbell FCU has partnered with have about 100 teachers each, and Ramsey said one teacher at each school was uncomfortable with the concept of a student-run branch. He added that he pointed out the credit union has students working even at its regular branches during the summer and school breaks.
For Truliant Federal Credit Union of Winston-Salem, N.C., the challenge of opening an in-school branch at East Forsyth High School was fitting the amount of teller training needed into the time constraint of school hours. Donnie Peaks, director of deposit services, said the credit union has adjusted the process for any future locations to identify the interns in the spring so they can receive standard new-hire training the summer before school starts.
Glenda Smith, director of member services at MECU, said the initial challenge for her credit union was finding a schedule that worked for potential members of the in-school branch. It was originally open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; Smith said students would take their account cards home on Monday and, because of the gap day, forget to bring them back on Wednesday. The credit union addressed the issue by changing the branch's schedule to keep it open on consecutive days. It is now open from 10:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., Monday through Friday.
One challenge Lewis at Suncoast Schools said her credit union faces is that the interns sometimes forget to use the correct terminology when referring to the branch.
"A lot of times they'll say 'bank'-'Hey, come open a bank account, come join the bank.' We have to really drive it home to them that credit unions really are different from banks and why we're different and why we're better."
Nihada Rizvanovic has found describing the credit union difference to be one of the most effective ways to get students' attention.
"I often explain that credit unions are owned by their members and have lower fees and banks are owned by stockholders and are very large, which can make you feel more like a number instead of a person," she said.
Rizvanovic, who works in member service/business development at Advantage Federal Credit Union in Rochester, N.Y., helps the student tellers at the credit union's East High School branch during its hours of operation, 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on Fridays. She is in a special position to relate to their situation, having herself worked for the credit union as a student teller at another in-school branch during her senior year.
"It's amazing to work with students who are in the same position as I was four years ago," she said. "I always encourage them to continue their education and to push themselves beyond the limit in order to achieve their future goals. When students talk to me they understand that it doesn't matter what your background is-if you set goals for yourself and don't give up, you can achieve them."
Setting goals is important to Cindy Jones, youth marketing manager at First Financial Federal Credit Union of Maryland, which has student-run branches at four Baltimore County high schools. Jones said the students she works with spend a whole day on strategic planning, creating targets for account openings, transactions and product cross-sells. At Chesapeake High School, student tellers in the Bayhawk Branch, the credit union's newest, opened 30 accounts in its first month of operation.
But although First Financial is teaching its interns to be business-minded, it doesn't measure the ROI from the branches in dollars.
"The return on investment is part of our mission," said Jones, whose credit union was originally chartered to serve educators in the county. "We're trying to help people become responsible fiscally. It's not a moneymaker for the credit union. It's a community service. It's something that teenagers need today."
The National Academy Foundation has a network of 500 career academies nationwide, many of which have opened student-run credit unions. "Many of our students live in communities that don't have financial services providers nearby and transportation is a major problem for getting to internship opportunities, so when the business comes to the school it helps a lot," said Andrew Rothstein, chief academic officer for the foundation.
And when a credit union opens a branch in a school, it's a boon not only for the interns who get hands-on experience, but also for the general student body, which obtains access to ethical financial services.
Pamela Campbell-Peralta has seen this benefit in action at Suncoast Schools' student-run branch in the Bowers-Whitley Career Center, an alternative high school in Tampa, Fla. "It has made a tremendous difference for those students having that on campus because they don't have to pay check-cashing fees," said Campbell-Peralta, general director of career technical and adult education for Hillsborough County's public schools.