All student loan borrowers are out to get an education, but for those who belong to credit unions, a different kind of schooling might be in store. Some credit unions say they’re placing an emphasis on educating their student loan recipients about the borrowing process, from application submission through repayment.
The $1.5 billion, Madison, Wis.-based University of Wisconsin Credit Union, for example, just announced the launch of a free exit counseling program for students graduating in May or this summer. UW CU will host in-person educational seminars on six University of Wisconsin campuses.
The credit union’s seminar topics will include estimated student loan payments, repayment options, who to contact with questions, federal financial aid, post-college budgeting and how student loans can affect personal credit history.
According to Mike Long, UW CU’s executive vice president and chief credit officer, as well as the executive vice president and chief operating officer for CU Campus Resources, a student lending CUSO wholly owned by UW CU, nearly 600 students have been invited to attend the sessions, and if the program is successful, the credit union will consider offering additional in-person sessions and an online counseling option.
Long added that UW CU has also arranged for students who are unable to attend a seminar to schedule a one-on-one counseling session with a manager at a local campus branch.
“Providing financial education is a core business value of ours,” Long said. “We felt that this session would give our student members some valuable information on how to manage their finances upon graduation. So while much of the session will cover managing student loan debt, there are other parts that will highlight the importance of maintaining a good credit score and the basics of a budget.”
UW CU is no novice in the financial education department–the credit union conducted more than 300 seminars to more than 7,500 students and community members in 2011.
“We hope that participants [of the exit counseling program] come away with a clear understanding of what their student loan responsibilities are and what things they should be thinking about as they become more financially independent,” Long said.
Credit unions that have not developed a specific post-graduation education program say they teach student loan borrowers about the loan repayment period early on. The $1 billion Eli Lilly FCU of Indianapolis, which was one of the eight original investors for student lending CUSO Credit Union Student Choice in 2008, offers personalized education and counseling to borrowers through its student lending department, explained Senior Vice President of Lending Rick Thornburg.
Eli Lilly FCU student lending department staffers provide support to student loan borrowers and their families, who often serve as co-signers, year-round, beginning with the financial aid application process in January and continuing with the private student loan application process in May, Thornburg said. They might meet with a student and parents in a Starbucks with a laptop to provide personal, one-on-one attention, for example. The credit union has also hosted educational, on-campus events at local colleges.
“We provide the education from the beginning, so once they get to repayment, they have a clear idea of what to expect,” Thornburg said. “We really work with them on the front-end to make everything as smooth as possible.”
At the $3.2 billion Mountain America CU of West Jordan, Utah, student loan borrowers are required to complete two online courses, which the credit union offers through a partnership with financial education organization Balance, on budgeting and the use of credit before they can receive funding for their student loans, said Jade Beckman, vice president of consumer loans.
“When we built the student loan program, we took into account what we were hearing from schools, and their No. 1 complaint was that lenders would give students a check for $50,000 and just say, ‘Here, go to school,’” Beckman said. “We take the approach of providing counseling before they get into debt.”
Thornburg and Beckman agree student loan borrowers face challenges during the repayment process, which are typically brought on by a competitive job market and poor money management skills. Beckman said many students have trouble managing their debt, and it’s important that they consider what their income levels will be post-graduation and how to budget for student loan payments.
“They have to recognize that it’s debt,” Beckman said. “They have to know what kind of an income level to expect and make wise decisions about their debt versus their income.”
Thornburg said Eli Lilly FCU wants to ensure its student loan borrowers have realistic expectations about their post-graduation student loan payments.
“The biggest challenge to student loan borrowers is getting a job, but even if they do get a job, the cost of education keeps going up,” Thornburg said. “The average amount of student loan debt is around $20,000. That’s a lot more than it used to be, and compared to what kids are making, it’s really tough. They have to be able to get their payments down to a level that they can afford.”
The post-graduation support credit unions provide includes loan workout options for struggling borrowers. Beckman said Mountain America CU offers a six-month post-graduation grace period, during which student loan borrowers are only required to make interest payments (interest payments are also required of borrowers prior to graduation). Borrowers who run into repayment issues can meet with Mountain America CU’s consumer loan department about loan workout solutions.