A strong credit union must integrate fully within the community it operates, especially if there are fundamental edification needs. Is your credit union a guardian of financial literacy, philanthropic about educational programs, and a strong partner for educating the community?
Findings suggest that early education in schools, with appropriately trained teachers, armed with properly designed curriculum, can be effective, especially if the socio-economic family aspects are addressed and schools partner with unbiased private or public-sector providers.
There are numerous supporting explanations for this statement. First, studies suggest that financial education improves measured financial behaviors in elementary, middle, and high school students.
Second, research demonstrates that early education is crucial as well as having properly designed curriculum and customized programs. Furthermore, waiting until high school is too late while financial education programs such as Financial Fitness for Life, I Can Save, Money in the Middle and Jump$start have demonstrated past positive results.
Third, the literature suggests behavior improvements carry forward into peak earning years with increased savings rates and higher net worth for educated students as compared to other students. Not surprisingly, financial education is a key predictor of financial knowledge and financial knowledge is a key predictor of financial behavior.
Fourth, families play a distinctly important role in financial education given the socio-economic correlations found in studies.
Last, the National Association of State Boards of Education in its 2006 report recommended, among other things, to leverage private/public partnerships in the fight against financial illiteracy.
Although a macro problem, the solution to financial illiteracy often lies at the local level. Schools are the ideal delivery channel for financial education as suggested by the literature. Yet, teacher training and teacher confidence in financial concepts can be a roadblock to successful financial education in the classroom. Other impediments from the research include suitable curricula and a lack of resources.
Moreover, due to potentially competing interests and differing value systems, pupils studying financial education may suffer from low perceived intrinsic value, a lack of motivation to learn, or a muted desire to retain the skills.
Sadly, the research also suggests that unscrupulous firms may capitalize on consumer vulnerabilities and during “teachable moments” when delivering commercially developed financial education.
Therefore, not only are member-owned financial cooperatives potential local partners as suggested by the NASBE report, one can also logically infer that credit unions are superior partners as honest corporate citizens, altruistic organizations and unbiased experts in the communities they serve.
Besides the teacher and student factors, there are at least three additional factors related to low financial literacy. Product related issues such as complexity, punitive defaults, misaligned sales incentives, and confusing disclosures often impede understanding.
Next, larger educational system factors such as minimal standards, insufficient requirements to implement those standards, or minimal testing requirements may exist.
Finally, and most importantly for this article, there are the socio-economic factors such occupation, income, education level, place of residence, access to financial services, language, and monetary values and norms than can plague families, the same families of the most at-risk students.
Ergo, besides ensuring that a credit union’s products and incentives are welfare enhancing to members and lobbying for stronger educational standards in the school systems, credit unions can synergistically tackle the socio-economic challenges of financial literacy in the community while generously supporting school efforts.
More explicitly, credit unions should undertake a dual approach and provide robust community and school outreach programs in their local areas. These programs and the aforementioned partnership endorsement are excellent opportunities for all credit unions, and a call to action.
So, how can credit unions help? Solving the confidence issue and the intrinsic motivation problem are two keys. For example, low confidence is caused by a lack of knowledge. A lack of knowledge is related to a lack of training. A lack of training for teachers is caused by a lack of availability.
Here, teacher workshops, resource support, school visits, matching funds for student accounts, donations, a school-to-school mobile branch, and opening mini school branches are some ways to help.
Students need to be taught why financial literacy is so important and rewarded with age-appropriate prizes, gifts, field trips or skill development. Additionally, targeting the socio-economic correlations is very important. Credit unions can sponsor community outreach groups and invite additional credit unions, libraries, community centers, civic organizations, churches, and other applicable opinion leaders to collaborate.
Moreover, credit unions could train community volunteers to reach out and educate individuals about financial topics. Credit unions should also hold community workshops, incentivize individuals for completing programs, provide language translation services, offer individual counseling and lead community awareness and social marketing campaigns through various channels.
In summary, is your credit union undertaking enough social responsibility for those who can least afford to make a poor economic choice?
If financial illiteracy is a local issue, which is likely the case, then credit unions can make a difference through school partnerships and strong community outreach programs. Taking this action will not only create lasting public value in the community, it will improve credit union legitimacy and most importantly, lives.
Anthony W. Montgomery is a senior director for a global non-profit in Nashville, Tenn., a former credit union executive and currently pursuing a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary leadership from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.