Center for Financial Independence

New Department Helps Students with Financial Literacy

“Who wants to be a millionaire?” Cassie McCarthy, COO called out.

Each student in attendance at the Center for Financial Independence’s (CFI) investment hour-long boot camp seminar raised their hand.

Many students arrive on college campuses each year to explore academic courses of interest and prepare for future careers. Rarely, however, do students receive an education in the day to day realities they will inevitably confront upon graduation, like personal finance and money management.

CFI was launched at Northeastern in January 2015 as a solution to this issue. It is a school department under the umbrella of the Department of Student Financial Services. The curriculum is presented by students, but is created with the help of CFI Director and D’Amore-McKim business lecturer Anya Ilkys and Citizens Bank Community Outreach and Financial Literacy Director Joe Green.

The first conception of the idea came about three years ago when Ilkys was working as an Assistant Director of Student Financial Services. Her boss, Tony Erwin, then the Dean of Student Financial Services realized there was a lot of talk about student financial literacy. This curiosity set Ilkys on to research and attend conferences to see what other universities were offering.

“There were a lot of schools doing good work and Northeastern wasn’t offering the services to students. A student would go to financial services and at a certain point the advisor would not be able to speak to the subject,” Ilkys recalled. The advisors, she said, would not be able to talk to debt management and other subjects likely outside of the normal scope of questions. There wasn’t much else to access for students, she noted, “There is one online class that not a lot of people know about, and something like 200 people a year would take it.”

After establishing the need for a financial literacy program, Ilkys decided to bring together a focus group of “driven and ambitious” students to act as a focus group. Enter the original four members: Jordan Lieberman ’15, Andrew Cameron ’15, Catherine Dello Russo ’15 and Nadav David ’15. The group set out to create the center’s curriculum in 2013.

“We started asking them questions like ‘What kind of things do you want to know? How do you see the information being delivered to you? and ‘What topics do you want to know about?’ Ilkys said. This small focus group determined the next steps for Ilkys. Most importantly, she pointed out, was that they needed to be a department. “It couldn’t be a student organization or an ad-hoc; it needed to have a brand and identity.”

The “Center for Financial Independence” (CFI) and “Thrive” were created after several hours of student interviews and conversations. CFI is the educational component that runs the events and holds the seminars in the event space while Thrive is the student incubator, a place where students can come and pitch ideas for programs, apps, trips and topics they would like to attend, fund or cover.

The modern workspace tucked away in a corner on the first floor of the Curry Recreation Center is the seminar and event space for the student led organization. It is equipped with mobile whiteboards and a collection of small lounge chairs that face the flat screen television ahead. The office is open five days a week and offers a variety of seminars with the most frequent being the finance boot camp series which includes three classes per series — budgeting, credit and investing.

The day’s boot camp topic was investing. Students packed into the space during their lunch hour to learn about investing with the title onscreen: “Investing: How to Get Started & What to Understand.” The students leading the class were COO Cassie McCarthy a senior finance and entrepreneurship student and Social Media Chair Alon Handler a sophomore political science and business major.

McCarthy and Handler introduced themselves to say who they are and why they are there.

“We want to answer your questions, so please let us know if you want something specific,” Cassie insisted.

The sophomore business major wanted to know who can help him decide the right place to put his money while a first year health science student didn’t know anything and wanted to hear the very basics.

The presentation and curriculum aligned with the novice level of the attendants. The first slide announced “You don’t actually have to know how a transmission works in order to successfully drive a car.”

McCarthy reiterated the quote which acted as both a disclaimer and comfort to students who may think the topic to be daunting. The complexities of the market, McCarthy explained, is not something one needs to understand completely in order to get involved.

The organization developed the curriculum by researching other programs, most notably material from Citizen Bank, Northeastern’s Financial Services Office and Society of Grownups, a Brookline based financial literacy startup for young adults.

Joe Green, a Citizen Bank Community Outreach Advocate and Financial Literacy Director, acts as a consultant for the group. He helps build the curriculum and attends events in case there are questions the student leaders are unable to answer. He also helps critique the presentations.

“I partner with high schools and colleges all over the northeast.” However, he said, “it’s great they they have their own system. It is the only school that has a student led financial literacy program in the country.”

The group continues to modify the course content and has funding available, through Thrive, if a student has a program that would align with the mission — like field trips or speakers. The 2016 spring semester is likely to see more programming geared toward getting Thrive off the ground as its own entity. “Students will come in and present their ideas of what they want to know,” Ilkys said, “coming up in the spring we hope to outsource to the student body and gather ideas from the them about different programs and apps.”

Zach Corenblum, who attended his first class on a friend’s request has learned a lot of useful information he hopes to pass on to peers as he transitions from his current role as CMO to COO in the spring.

“I became more cognizant about my savings, spending habits, and short term and long term goals. I got more organized in paying bills — I now pay them on the same day. And pay directly through my bank website instead of apps,” he said.

Similar to Corenblum’s journey and those original four who started the group, CFI is taking steps to build out the idea of a financial literacy department on campus. The curriculum and ventures will hopefully compound over time.