How to Successfully Introduce Financial Literacy to College Students: Avoid Concept Overload

When I started coaching our Investees on financial literacy, I tried to pattern our modules after widely available financial literacy materials from popular financial institutions. I noticed that, regardless of their audience’s age and socioeconomic profile, something was common: they merely introduced concepts – a lot of them in one sitting.

How do college students react to this? 

In my years of coaching young college students, I have observed that no matter how many concepts I talked about, they usually only remembered one concept when I checked in after a few months.

Although these concepts are fundamental, we realized that college students have not yet developed the level of self-control that adults have, in order to apply financial literacy concepts readily. One big issue in teaching Financial Literacy lies in the lack of guidance in applying the concepts.

To improve our financial literacy program, we studied two types of Investees: Group 1 (those who have never had a single delay in their repayment) and Group 2 (those who occasionally missed their due dates). The two groups exhibited no difference in terms of familiarity with FinLit concepts. 

There was however a marked difference in their habits: Members of Group 1 were more likely to have habits in place to control their expenses. It was notable how they proudly talked about their “hacks”.

For example, one Investee used three wallets – one for bills, one for leisure, and one for daily expenses and the first one is pre-emptively tucked away to provide assurance that it will be used only as intended. 

Contrary to my hypothesis, it is not that members of Group 1 were good at self-control. In fact, they admitted to being weak at controlling their spending. The difference is that they have adopted habits that help with their weakness.

What might be done? In designing a program or learning intervention for college-aged youth, do not prioritize the quantity of concepts. Rather, prioritize talking about habits in more depth.

Personally, I count the number of concepts I am introducing in a session. My rule of thumb is to focus on no more than three big concepts in an hour. If I only had one hour, I would instead focus on a maximum of two specific concepts and follow each of them with three concrete habit suggestions. For example, when I introduced the topic of School Expenses, I zeroed in on one type only: beverage. At least half an hour was spent discussing different cost-cutting habits on beverages. With this approach, I noticed that the wealth of examples motivated learners to come up with their own approaches to applying the concept in a way that works for them.

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