Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020
Editor's note: In addition to providing financial guidance and information to students, VCU's Student Financial Management Center is at the heart of the university's efforts to provide students financial assistance related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those efforts were covered in an April 25, 2021 article in the Washington Post. Most recently, VCU distributed more than $10 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II funding to approximately 5,500 students. For more information on COVID-19 relief, visit the Student Financial Services website.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Financial Management Center opened last spring to provide students with timely, accurate information about their finances. Formed to be accessible to every student, the center employs a team of financial counselors who work with students on an individual basis and are attuned to each student’s particular situation. Every student is assigned a counselor, similar to the way that they are all assigned an academic adviser.
Tomikia LeGrande, Ed.D., vice president for strategy, enrollment management and student success, and Ka Toya Wagner, director of the Student Financial Management Center, spoke with VCU News about the center and its mission to create a more holistic, supportive experience for students in which they view their financial counselor as a person in their circle of support to help them navigate life outside the classroom and achieve their degree.
Why did VCU create the Student Financial Management Center?
LeGrande: VCU serves a larger percentage of low-income, first-generation students. Those two student identifiers impact finances and what people know about finance in college. What you find is a group of students who have a lot of questions and need guidance for themselves and their families. The closest thing to the [Student Financial Management Center] would be a life coach. We really want to create a holistic, caring experience for our students to ensure that they get the information that they need … [and they] will be financially literate, competent and comfortable. Students should think of the center’s staff as knowledgeable experts who can help guide them to figure out how to pay for college.
How is the center set up?
LeGrande: [There are] eight [financial] counselors — set to grow to ten — peer counselors and peer ambassadors. The blend of undergraduates, graduate students and professional staff exists because there are some interactions that are best led by peers. [The center is] open for in-person visits Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone or Zoom appointments are also available.
Wagner: In the Navigate platform, [specific] counselors are listed as a part [of each student’s] success team. But students are able to come in any day of the week and meet with a financial counselor who may be on campus that day for immediate needs.
How is the Student Financial Management Center beneficial to students?
Wagner: The Student Financial Management Center gives students access to financial information, an understanding of their bill, budgeting skills and skills to plan out the next four years in order to be more successful. Students who struggle academically, often there is a financial issue behind that. They’re not able to concentrate academically, because they’re worried about their bill. It creates this cycle. That can lead to us not being able to retain our students and get them to their goal [of earning a degree].
LeGrande: As an urban institution with only a small percentage of our students actually living on campus, relationships are even more important for our students because they come to campus often for class or when they have business to handle. We wanted to create this environment where they feel welcome, not like they’re being sent to the principal’s office because they have to deal with their finances. They should feel comfortable [talking] to someone about things they don’t know. This is the first time in which most students are managing such a huge investment and it is scary. We’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars. For many students, when they start the journey, they’re really not all that sure what they want to do with their life. Their financial counselor is a partner for them.
Wagner: We often have conversations where we encourage students to pay their interest on educational loans while they’re in school and to think about ways to keep their principal low, as well as ways to minimize their costs by looking at some resident assistant opportunities and to think long term, to have better relationships with money.
LeGrande: Many VCU students work as they’re pursuing education because they have to. But then we also have individuals that are loan averse. The financial counselor conversation can help a student weigh out the opportunity cost. Because when you’re working full time and trying to go to school, what happens is you often go from taking 15 credit hours to 12 credit hours, and then nine credit hours to six credit hours and you delay graduation further and further. And with each year that you delay graduation, that’s a year of earning potential. And the question becomes, if you compare your future earning potential with the money that you are making now versus probably this $5,000 loan that you need to finish out this semester, is it worth it? It’s not a decision for us to make. That is an individual choice, but it is a conversation that if you’ve not been in this circumstance that you wouldn’t even know to consider. If, in the end, they decide, no, I want to work full time, we can talk about a part-time load, and encourage students to go talk with their academic adviser, to sequence it out so they can graduate in six years, to make a plan to be able to do that, to help the students understand their options and make informed choices.
Is the Student Financial Management Center part of a trend at universities?
LeGrande: This model exists at some, mostly smaller institutions, where they are able to [more easily] give personalized attention. You do not often find this model at an institution with 30,000 students. But here at VCU we know that directly supporting the needs of our diverse student body and their families includes our ability to give them good timely advice, care and concern. It’s an investment but it’s where we want to invest our money — supporting our students.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known about finances when you were 18?
LeGrande: I am [an example of] the students we serve because I was a low-income and first-generation [student]. I was just trying to navigate these waters by myself. My family supported me, but they didn’t know what to do to help me. What I wish I had known at 18 is that not knowing is okay. But the power is trying to find a network of people who do know, who can help you to develop your own plan based upon your circumstances, and to find strategies for success, understanding that you don’t have to do this on your own.
And I think about that, not just with school finances, but with credit reports, budgets, buying a house and investing. If at 18, somebody had taken me in, and helped me to begin to understand the fundamentals of finances, that would have changed my trajectory, with my short- and long-term financial decisions.
Wagner: I also was a first-generation, low-income student where the goal was just to make it through the day. I did not understand finances. What I wish I would have known at 18 was that I had an unhealthy relationship with money. And I just wish I would have had someone or had the knowledge to even say: “You are doing something wrong, there’s something more to this and you have to think long term.” Not that you have to worship money or finances, but you need to value them and figure out what is the best way for you to get your goals met in the long term. College really changed my life, but it didn’t change my relationship with money. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. It is with that passion that I lead this unit to give this information to students so that they can have a better life later on where they’re able to make sound decisions.
The Student Financial Management Center, located on the first floor of Harris Hall, 1015 Floyd Ave., is open for in-person visits Monday–Friday from 8-5 p.m. Phone and Zoom appointments are also available. Current students can log in to Navigate to find their financial counselor. Prospective students can email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.
Phone: (804) 828-1550
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