As a financial aid coordinator for 13 years at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, Ilia Cordero has spoken to many students who don't budget, save or know the basics of money management. "I would ask them if they applied for financial aid and if so, what they used their excess funds for," says Ilia. "Few had budgets and many used leftover money without considering needs versus wants."
As part of America Saves Week in 2009, students set up a table on campus to spread the word about the importance of saving money. Ilia noticed that students were more likely to approach the table because their own peers were sitting behind it. She initiated the Financial Learning Ambassadors (FLA) program, a peer-to-peer mentoring program for financial literacy. Later that year, it received an annual $25,000 grant from USA Funds for three consecutive years. Since, the program has expanded to four campuses with 19 ambassadors total. To boost its success, a recognizable brand was created, complete with logo, taglines ('Save Your Change for Change') and metaphorical promotional items such as lunch boxes that represent bringing lunch instead of purchasing it. Over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, the FLA program has taught over 5,000 students.
Part of the program involves conducting presentations in classrooms and at freshmen orientations based on the USA Funds Life Skills curriculum, which consists of 33 modules covering financial topics such as credit card debt, budgeting, saving and the cost of college. The presentations are typically coordinated with the Student Life Department surrounding campus events. A recent training in spring featured the ambassadors conducting presentations about the importance of saving for a safe spring break, rather than charging to a credit card and potentially building debt.
A popular activity set up by the program is the financial literacy haunted house. The school auditorium is transformed into seven scenes depicting "scary" financial scenarios. In one scene, for example, a woman dressed in dirty, ripped clothes and messy hair has had her identity stolen. "Shred your documents!" she screams as students pass by. In another, a financial fortuneteller predicts the bleak future of those who fail to budget and carry too much credit card debt. There is also a student loan graveyard with tombs that read "I died with $70,000 student loan debt." These concepts are physical depictions of the concepts learned during the classroom presentations.
There are several reasons why it is important to improve the financial literacy of Valencia College's students, explains Ilia. "The cohort default rate, which is the rate students repay their loans, affects the college. If it is too high, we can lose our funding. Also, when students don't pay back their loans, they go into default, which affects their tax refunds, credit rating, social security and more. There are so many implications, but they don't know about them." Many of the students involved in the FLA program have asked, 'why haven't I learned about this before?'
Ilia's ultimate goal is to fully implement the curriculum in all new student experience classes, which teach freshmen and new students basic life skills, study behaviors and time management. Though financial literacy is included as a portion of these courses, Ilia wants to make it a much larger part.
It took a devastating financial blow for Ilia to start practicing good finance in her own life. In 2007, her husband was laid off. Without proper savings, she was forced to sell her home and move her two kids and husband in with her mother. "If I had saved, I would have been more prepared," she says. "Now I used fantastic tools like Mint to track spending and set budgeting goals. My savings account is in a different bank and money is automatically taken out of my paycheck so I don't even see it."
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Ilia Cordero for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at Valencia College in Florida.