Ah, the freedom of college, where you can subsist on pizza and skip your biology class without the threat of parental retribution. But being on your own has its downside, too. Suddenly, you’re paying some of your own bills. You may be taking on thousands of dollars in student loans. And you have to figure out whether your new Abercrombie jeans will push you over the spending limit on your credit card. Where’s Mom when you need her?
While your parents aren’t around to teach you how to handle your money, others — including the college itself — are pitching in to help students do everything from trim expenses to file a tax return.
Here are five kinds of financial help to look for at your school:
Money 101 classes
If paying for books and Burger King in the same month has pushed your budgeting skills to the limit, you’re a likely candidate for some basic financial literacy education, which your university probably provides. At Boston University this year, CapitalOne presented its MoneyWi$e University course as a one-time, two-hour session that hit on the basics of budgeting, getting a car loan, handling credit cards, saving and even buying a home. “At one point, we had an interactive session on what real-world expenses are, and students really began to participate,” says Diana Don Colby, director of financial education for CapitalOne. “We talked about, ‘Are you going to need a car to get to work after you graduate? Can you take public transportation? What’s it going to cost you?’ — real-life factors like that.”
Similar financial advice is available – often for free – from the college administration. At Utah State University, for example, students can get free financial counseling from professional staffers and student interns through the university’s office of Housing and Financial Counseling Services. “The first we do is go over your current budget — and many people don’t have a budget,” says Mindy Nielsen, assistant director. “So we have you give us a ‘guesstimate’ of how much you spend monthly, or we’ll ask you to track expenses for a minimum of 14 days. Your counselor then comes up with a new money management plan for you, commits you to meeting specific goals and follows up until you’ve actually made some positive changes.”
Not only is the counseling gratis, it sometimes even pays. Nielsen says the office has been known to lure in new students by offering a $25 gift certificate to the campus bookstore in exchange for two sessions with a counselor.
If you can’t find any help like this at your school, try Web sites such as www.YouCanDealWithIt.com, which teaches college students and recent grads about money matters.
Credit card protection
Even if you’re not among the 76 percent of undergrads armed with your own credit card, you’ll probably be offered 15 to 20 cards each semester through mail and phone solicitations. In the face of that temptation, it’s hard to resist racking up debt. That’s why hundreds of university administrators have prohibited credit card companies from setting up booths during the first few weeks of school, from sponsoring campus events and sometimes from setting foot on campus at all.
Other schools chuck anything that might induce you to sign up for another piece of plastic. At Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., the mail room receives “trays and trays of mail” from credit card providers, says Greg Stanson, vice president for enrollment and student services. But much of it gets dumped before it ever hits student mailboxes. “We do not deliver bulk mail that isn’t addressed to a specific student, and during the summer we do not forward any mail that isn’t sent via first-class postage.”
If you’re financing your education with federal loans, you can usually count on getting a healthy dose of debt counseling at the start of your college career, then again at the end.
Some schools go further. At the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., financial aid officers want to see you when you’re about to get in over your head.
Because the school caters to older, nontraditional learners, many with families, some students take out heavy-duty loans to cover living expenses. But when a student hits the national average debt load for his course of study — $17,000 for an undergraduate, $48,000 for a business school student — he’s required to get some debt counseling.
Financial aid advisers scare big-time borrowers straight with info on the bite that debt repayment will take out of their paycheck after they graduate. They also offer personal advice on financing an education, scoring little-known scholarships, finding an on-campus jobs that offers tuition remission, and paying interest on student loans while a collegian is still in school.
The result: Students tend to scale back on their loans. “Our default rate is about 1 percent at Hopkins,” says Laura Donnelly, director of financial aid for the School of Professional Studies. “Banks would kill to have such a low default rate.”
If you actually know what a 1040 EZ looks like as an undergraduate, you’re probably ahead of the game, but you may still be daunted by the thought of actually filing one. Luckily, many universities can help through the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program, which provides free tax preparation services for qualifying community members, often with student volunteers.
At Arizona State University in Tempe, for instance, VITA volunteers from the law school provided first-come, first-served help to more than 100 resident students and nearly 1,000 international students last year, says Ming Kang, one of the program’s directors. Volunteers know what they’re doing, too. The students, often culled from the university’s business school or accounting program, are required to pass two online exams through the Internal Revenue Service Web site before they can prepare tax returns through VITA. To locate the nearest VITA site, call 800-829-1040.
Not every college student is ignorant about money. Take David Carswell, a University of Georgia student who opened his first savings account at age 5 and makes the maximum yearly contribution to his Roth IRA, even as an undergrad. As the student director of UGA’s Peer Financial Counseling program, Carswell and others like him want to help you. “The program is set up on the premise that the best way to reach college students is by having fellow students provide valuable information and experiences,” Carswell says.
Through the program, trained student volunteers preach the importance of being money-savvy to students in classes, residence halls, clubs and student organizations. Occasionally, volunteers also counsel one on one with peers in need of help. Last fall, a graduate student who had amassed $20,000 in credit card debt came to Carswell for help and left with new ideas on creating a budget, trimming expenses, paying off her credit cards and negotiating new terms with lenders. Carswell even managed to help her start saving for a car.
“After several months, I called the student to follow up. She said she was making significant progress,” he says.
The program, which began at University of Georgia in 2001, has since been adopted by nine other campuses.
Melody Warnick is a freelance writer in Iowa.