Money Talks, So Should You

The freshman $15,000 is worse than the freshman 15

First-year students are woefully unprepared for handling their finances away from home, a study finds.

Brian O'Connell
by Brian O'Connell, MainStreet contributor

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Maybe you’ve heard of the “freshman 15.”

That’s the average amount of weight first-year college students are predicted to gain during their first year away from mom and dad’s healthy cooking.

Then there’s the “Freshman $15,000” — the amount of debt accrued by a college freshman who isn’t careful about how they’re spending money and saving for the last three years of college — and after.

READ: Paying back a $240,000 education

Granted, $15,000 isn’t a hard and fast number. In fact, it could be less, but there’s no question toxic financial attitudes about money can lead to “risky financial behaviors” among the first year college set.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Higher One, a Washington, D.C., college and university technology services company.

The report, Money Matters on Campus: How Early Attitudes and Behaviors Affect the Financial Decisions of First-Year College Students, surveyed 40,000 college students on their attitudes about savings, debt and spending once they set foot on campus.

The big takeaway is this: First-year students are unprepared for handling their own finances away from home, and there is a “strong” connection between accumulating heavy debt during freshman year and not having a bank account.

READ: Beware of sneaky student loan companies

Financial mistakes made in the early years of college can hang around, and worsen, as the student graduates and heads out into the real word. That “hangover,” the Higher One study says, can lead to an “increased risk of negative financially related outcomes” later in life.

While the report doesn’t call out parents for not teaching their kids good money habits, it does brush aside any role mom and dad might have once their kids leave for college. The study calls for more pervasive and powerful financial literacy programs on campus for college freshmen.

“This report sounds the alarm that institutions must augment current financial literacy education,” says Mary Johnson, director of financial literacy and student aid policy at Higher One. “We need to ensure students entering into college are given the right financial literacy education, tools and support to make sound financial decisions while in college and beyond.”

Above all, college financial literacy programs need to take into account a student’s “attitudes, motivation and behaviors” in teaching them better money habits, the paper states.

READ: 10 easy ways to avoid big college debts

“Colleges and universities — especially those enrolling greater numbers of first-generation students than ever before — have an obligation to improve financial literacy and increase positive financial outcomes for our students,” says Steven Bahls, president of Augustana College in Illinois. “As leaders concerned with transparency, accountability and access, our primary and time-honored concerns are to educate the whole person, which must include students’ financial health.”

The study notes that 79 percent of first-year college students worry about debt, and another 28 percent come to college carrying credit cards — an alarming number, the report says. The good news is that 86 percent of college freshman do have a bank account, and most interact with their banks several times per month.

For parents and young college students, the Higher One report is worth a look.

Apparently, an ounce of prevention now can prevent a pound of problems later. And that goes way beyond the traditional “Freshman 15.”

 

Brian O’Connell has 15 years of experience covering business news and trends, particularly in the financial, health care and career management sectors. He has written 14 books and appeared on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, C-Span, Bloomberg, CBS Radio and other media outlets and in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The Street.com. He is a former Wall Street bond trader.