Recently, a student arrived at Professor Mark Oleson's office. She was a junior at the University of Missouri-Columbia, a Spanish major recently returned from a summer of studying abroad, and looking forward to a career teaching Spanish.
She was also broke and $70,000 in debt to student loans. She had exhausted all her appeals for financial aid. Her parents were struggling through their own bankruptcy and could no longer co-sign for more loans, and she was standing in Oleson's office with her tuition bill wondering what to do.
For Oleson, the director of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Office of Financial Success, her visit is all too typical. "Students come into college thinking about their education, which is great," says Oleson, "but that's all they're thinking about some times. They aren't thinking about how much debt they can afford given their chosen field." Oleson elaborates that college and universities often define success only within the framework of a degree. It's push, push, push towards a degree with no, or too little, attention being paid to the costs of that degree. The result is that students often can't afford to go into their chosen field. "You can't leave college and be a Spanish teacher, or teach ESL, or pursue teaching English if you accruing $1000/month in interest on your student loans," says Oleson. "You'll never be able to pay off your debt."
"We need ESL teachers, we need Spanish teachers. We want students to be successful in their chosen field. But many of them cannot. They've unknowingly sold their futures," says Oleson.
And so Oleson began teaching a 1-credit (once a week) class to freshman called "Financial Survival." The class introduces students to the financial issues unique to them, such as student loans, and a variety of issues common to all ages such as credit and credit cards. Oleson wants freshman thinking about their educational and financial decisions early in their college years so that they don't show up in his office as upperclassmen, faced with a large debt load and dropping out to work and cover their debt. "Awareness is really the key. Students make their most severe financial mistakes from a lack of awareness and inactivity. This class teaches them to make proactive decisions about their finances as it relates to their college education.
The class was an immediate success, which led Oleson to add a class for seniors called "Financial Success." In this second course, Oleson helps students look past their graduation date to the pressing financial questions students face in their first years in the marketplace, issues like 401Ks, IRAs and insurance needs.
Oleson also started a weekly tip for students, which grew into a blog (financialtip.blogspot.com) that now has 45,000 subscribers and has garnered numerous awards in the past year.
"Education is a great investment," says Oleson. "But the investment needs to be evaluated against the student's goals, including what they want to do when they graduate. It isn't just about getting a degree. It's about getting a degree and having the freedom, once they graduate, to pursue the goals that degree expresses."
Because of his innovative work with university students, and for reaching beyond traditional curriculum and traditional communication channels to reach students, Practical Money Skills for Life recognizes Dr. Mark Oleson, of the University of Missouri-Columbia's Office of Financial Success, as our February 2007 Innovative Educator.