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Baker Report: Financial literacy a critical skill for managing debt, building lives

August 14, 2014
Douglas D. Baker

Douglas D. Baker

It’s no secret that decreasing state budget appropriations for higher education in Illinois – including a drop of nearly $25 million at NIU over the past 12 years – have forced schools like ours to raise tuition to balance the books. This increase in the cost of higher education has created a significant debt load for many graduates.

According to a national survey, people in the 18-to-24 age bracket spend nearly 30 percent of their monthly income just on debt repayment – double the percentage spent back in 1992 (and way beyond the guideline of 10 percent that experts recommend as a debt limit). While that’s not totally the result of student debt, it is certainly a significant contributing factor.

At NIU, we believe it’s our obligation to help students get a quality education at an affordable cost. That’s why we are holding the line on total costs of a four-year education and instead focusing on increasing enrollment and improving retention to achieve financial sustainability. In addition, many of our students take advantage of a wide variety of grants, loans and scholarships that we make available through federal, state and private sources.

Another obligation we have as a university is to offer our students the opportunity to learn the skills they need to effectively deal with their finances. While debt will continue to be a challenge, we can help our students better manage it, as well as help them stick to a budget. Being effective managers of one’s personal assets is a life skill that is essential if our graduates are going to be able to focus their attention on achieving career success.

A key strategy for helping students cope with their financial challenges is to provide formal instruction and guidance in financial literacy – something we currently provide through a program on campus called “Financial Cents,” managed by our Office of Student Academic Success.

On a statewide level, our involvement begins in the K-12 system through our sponsorship and support of the most highly regarded financial literacy initiative in the State of Illinois. I am referring to Econ Illinois, an organization that for more than 60 years has helped thousands of teachers at the K-12 level integrate financial literacy concepts into their classrooms.

Econ Illinois logoEcon Illinois not only trains teachers but also recognizes high achievement in the teaching of economics and maintains programs that engage and capture the imagination of students. One such effort is the “Stock Market Game,” which teaches students the principles of how markets work. Through Econ Illinois, students across the state compete in the National Personal Finance Challenge, and in fact, Naperville Central – minutes from our Naperville campus – placed second in this year’s national competition.

Econ Illinois is headquartered at NIU, and we provide the organization with staff support and expertise, as well as leadership for its governing boards. In addition, NIU operates one of Econ Illinois’ regional centers of economic education.

For more than 30 years, NIU’s center has trained K-12 teachers from 11 counties in the northern Illinois region to deliver education in economics and financial literacy. Located in NIU’s P-20 Center, the Center for Economic Education collaborates with faculty members in the Colleges of Education, Liberal Arts and Sciences and Business. Through our involvement in Econ Illinois, NIU is also at the forefront of building statewide pathways to careers in financial services of all kinds.

Advocacy of financial literacy and implementation of training programs at the K-12 level is another excellent example of how NIU is engaging with communities across the state to improve student prospects of being successful, both in academics and in life. Please take a look at the Econ Illinois website.