When the number of students visiting the financial aid office of North Central University in Minneapolis began to increase over the past few years, Rebecca Gonzalez was alarmed. A growing number of undergrads were applying for additional student loans–loans they could not afford.
"When a student came in once to pay their rent and used three different credit cards, I was a little disturbed. As I began to run them through and several were declined, it really bothered me," says Gonzalez, the Student Accounts Director at the small, Midwestern private school. "Students not paying their bills, wasting federal funding and not thinking about what will happen when they leave school made me think about what could be done to educate our students."
That something was Project SOS. The lunch hour sessions that began in 2009 were oriented toward making financial literacy lessons fun, which is not an easy task on a college campus. Several local banks and credit unions have partnered with the university to support this initiative, bringing in their local experts to help offer students advice. Each session features a different subject, such as "Spend or Save," which covers basic budgeting; "Sink or Swim," dealing with credit history; and "Save Our Students," which helps students learn how to repay what they owe on student loans.
Gonzalez and her fellow instructors wear lifeguard t-shirts to Project SOS's nautical-themed events, which are conducted three times each semester. Over 250 of the school's 1,500 students participated in the program voluntarily during 45-minute lunch hour sessions. The university is planning on kicking off Project SOS's 2011 efforts with an on-campus Super Bowl event featuring Financial Football, Visa's NFL-themed educational video game.
"We are going to have teams play against each other on campus leading up to the Super Bowl and the top two will face off at half-time during our student event next year," says Gonzalez. "We are going to kick off Project SOS for the new year incorporating Financial Football, and we are so excited about taking something fun and incorporating the money aspect. The more fun we make it for the students, the more they learn."
A spillover effect of the program is that more students are trying to pay off a portion of their student loans while still in school. North Central's financial aid office offers The Ram Plan, which allows students to pay off their loans in small amounts each month. Just over 100 students took advantage of the repayment program in 2009, versus the 350 that enrolled in 2010. "It’s in little bites, which they can easily manage; paying the interest on unsubsidized Stafford Loans instead of spending that money on this or that."
Project SOS has been so effective on campus that the university is placing a larger emphasis on the program moving forward. "We had a zero budget when we started, and now we are going to partner with the business program to make it part of the curriculum," says Gonzalez.
Practical Money Skills commends Gonzalez for her efforts in Project SOS and her commitment to financial literacy education at North Central University.