UI student group teaches financial literacy to at-risk Iowa City students

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Artisha Norris signed up for a debit card so she wouldn’t ruin her credit. Jazzy Jones started budgeting her expenses. Quenisha Wood is more careful about where she spends her money.

This wasn’t the case for the three Iowa City High School seniors before last year when, they admit, they knew very little about how to manage their finances.

“If I saw something I wanted, I’d buy it,” says Wood. “Now, I’ve learned to separate what I want from what I need and if I don’t need it, I don’t buy it.”

The students received their newfound financial understanding from a group of 16 volunteers from the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business who teach financial literacy weekly to students at two of Iowa City’s public high schools. The MoneyThink program is a national financial literacy curriculum, and the UI volunteers work with students in Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates (IJAG), a dropout-prevention program for at-risk students.

students in high school classroom
MoneyThink students were recognized for their efforts last spring by the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, receiving the Partnership Excellence in Education award. Photo by Tim Schoon.

MoneyThink was piloted last year at City High in the IJAG class taught by Elizabeth Rook (BA ’11, MPH ’14) and then expanded to West High School this year. About 90 students from both schools take the class.

“We do things to help the students prepare for a successful life after high school, whether that’s going to college or starting a career,” says Rook.

Taylor Palensky, a UI senior accounting and finance major and co-president of the MoneyThink student organization, says the curriculum teaches basic personal finance concepts such as budgeting, insurance, interest rates, taxes, banking, and goal setting.

“We show them things like what the difference is between a debit and a credit card, or a savings account and a checking account,” she says. “We help them become adults with their financial life.”

The Tippie students started volunteering after Rook was hired to direct the IJAG program last year and Palensky—who was in a UI campus ministry group with her—suggested she incorporate MoneyThink into her class. The national MoneyThink organization provides a curriculum with classroom discussion points, worksheets, and hypothetical financial scenarios. But Rook says the real learning happens when the class breaks into small groups and the high school students ask questions of their mentors.

“They talk about more than just money,” she says. “They talk about how to get a job, for instance, or how to apply for college. Most of these students are from families where nobody has gone to college, so they don’t know how the admissions system works.”

“They were really friendly,” says Jones, who is a student at CHS. “If I have questions, they always help us.”

Rook points out that the high school students can relate to their UI mentors because they’re close in age.

Elliott Smith, MoneyThink’s co-president and an accounting major, says their lessons have made a difference in the students’ lives.

“We’ve had students open bank accounts and file tax returns who had never done those things before,” he says.

The City High students agree that it’s changed their spending and saving habits.

“I’m not as likely to spend as much money using a debit card if I don’t have cash,” says Norris, ensuring that her credit stays good.

“It’s not a bad thing to have a credit card—you just have to know how to use it,” Jones says.

MoneyThink students were recognized for their efforts last spring by the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, receiving the Partnership Excellence in Education award.