What better way to get a gauge on how deft members are with their financial planning and investment goals than to test the employees at their credit unions.
That was part of the premise behind the Investor Education in Your Workplace program, a joint project created in 2009 between the Wisconsin Credit Union League and the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit organization devoted to investment education.
Also dubbed Real Progress and Pathways to Prosperity, the project’s goal was to recruit credit unions in Wisconsin and enroll their employees in an online investor education program to see whether the education led to knowledge gains and behavior changes.
The Filene Research Institute recently released the most current outcomes. Wisconsin employees’ scores on interest and credit responses rose 3% to 4% following the education modules. Scores for knowledge of investing for retirement rose 11%, 21% for knowledge of stocks and bonds, and 25% for knowledge of investor information available online.
The research report, authored by J. Michael Collins, assistant professor and director of Century for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also showed that the education corresponded to improvements in financial behavior. Eight percent of participants reported opening an individual retirement account, 6% established a written budget, and 5% drafted a written financial plan and saving for three months of expenses.
Ben Rogers, research director at Filene, said the changing scope of financial education has been shaped by more individuals taking the independent route.
“Financial education used to be easy to picture–think of a classroom, a teacher, maybe a workbook, and definitely some pamphlets–tools for reaching students have rapidly expanded,” Rogers said in the report. “In an environment that increasingly relies on individuals to make their own financial plans, how effective is online learning?”
To find out the answer, the league, along with Gov. Jim Doyle's Council on Financial Literacy, Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and the Puelicher Center for Banking Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, collaborated on the project.
The nine-module program covered the following topics: getting started on investing, basics of personal finance, basics of investing, basics of investment strategies, investment risks, basics of retirement planning, investing in mutual funds, working with financial advisors, and saving for college.
Forty-five credit unions in Wisconsin offered the program to their employees. Participants completed a 48-question survey concerning their self-assessed investor knowledge and self-reported investor behavior in October 2009, January 2010, and April 2010.
Rogers said for credit unions that want to promote thrift and make sure that employees throughout the organization help members make good financial decisions, the research is revealing.
“It’s particularly interesting for credit unions that want to emphasize investing and retirement services as part of their product offerings, because it shows credit union employees can make worthwhile knowledge gains on investing topics,” Rogers noted.
Participants tended to be older, less likely to be married, were more likely to have older children, and had lower incomes. They were also less likely to have attended college and worked for smaller credit unions.
The participants were asked to identify where they learned about investor topics. Twenty-five percent said they go online. The research indicated that credit union employees attributed tapping this resource to the knowledge they gained from participating in the project.
While there was an increase in the use of IRAs, budgets and financial plans, the evidence was weak in proving whether online education increased the likelihood that employees had set aside savings equal to three months’ worth of expenses, according to the report.
Credit union employees also boosted their knowledge of interest and loans, credit scores, stocks and bonds and investing for retirement after completing the online modules.
Rogers said among the implications of the investor education project for credit unions are remote learning tools can help members improve financial knowledge and behavior.
“That’s promising in a cultural environment that increasingly prizes on-demand information access and in which members may be less inclined to sit through traditional financial education,” Rogers said.