ABOVE: Kindergartner Sadie Fero dons a Velcro suit full of fake dollar bills she accumulated by rolling on gym mats for 60 seconds in CORE FCU's "Rolling in the Dough" contest. The East Syracuse, N.Y., credit union won a Desjardins Award for emphasizing youth financial education.
"Financial education is part of credit unions’ DNA,” says Gigi Hyland, executive director of the National Credit Union Foundation, the credit union movement’s philanthropic arm.
In fact, providing financial education comes as naturally to credit unions as opening checking accounts or issuing car loans. That’s why they’ve gained a reputation in communities across the country as the go-to resource for financial literacy training.
“That’s a great place for credit unions to be,” Hyland says.
Still, she’d like to see credit unions do more to tout their financial education achievements. The Foundation analyzes programs and approaches that work best, and assesses financial education’s impact on people’s lives.
“At every turn,” Hyland says, “we urge credit unions to talk more frequently and more forcefully about what they’re doing to improve the financial lives of people in their communities.”
CORE Federal Credit Union in East Syracuse, N.Y., and Oregon State Credit Union in Corvallis are two of many credit unions that support innovative and effective programs. These credit unions—which earned first-place Desjardins Financial Education Awards from CUNA in 2014—shared with Credit Union Magazine the principles that make their programs tick.
Students run the show
A decade ago, CORE Federal launched a student-run credit union at East Syracuse Minoa Central High School. William Sweeney, CEO of the $94 million asset credit union, was among those who interviewed students to participate in the project. He remembers one student in particular.
She asked Sweeney what he’d do if the credit union opened and students didn’t come. Sweeney replied he didn’t know, and tossed the question back to her: What was she going to do if no one came?
“She froze for a second,” Sweeney recalls, “and then said, ‘Wow, you really are serious about this being our project and our responsibility.’ ”
From day one, CORE Federal has put high-school students in charge of the operation.
“We handed them the keys to the bus,” Sweeney explains, “and said, ‘You drive it. You tell us how to make this a more dynamic learning experience for your fellow students.’ ”
What began in 2005, with 15 students from a finance class opening a credit union, has become something much bigger. Last year, 225 high-school students and nearly 1,900 students from kindergarten through eighth grade—representing three public school districts, and a number of parochial schools— participated in a variety of financial education activities CORE Federal sponsored.
Besides operating their own credit union three days a week, high schoolers lead after-school financial education workshops for their peers. “These young people aren’t just students—they’re educators,” Sweeney says.
The teaching role took another leap with the introduction of the Bank at School program. The high school students visit elementary and middle schools once a month, setting up in the cafeteria to accept younger students’ deposits. But the high schoolers function as much more than tellers.
“They’re mentors and role models,” Sweeney says. “They’ll ask the younger kids what they’re saving for and tell them they’re doing a great job. That’s what makes this so special.”
Also on Bank at School days, teens make classroom visits to read books with a financial theme and then engage the younger kids in a related lesson and discussion.
The teachers appreciate these visits, Sweeney says, because their students get to hear a new voice on a financial topic. Young students get excited about the “big kids” hanging out and talking with them.
The high-school students also have a wealth of ideas for contests and other special events, including:
Students qualify to enter these contests after making deposits or completing workshops.
A wider audience
The teens’ finesse in teaching peers and younger children spurred even more ambitious initiatives. High school students, along with credit union personnel, now co-facilitate adult financial education sessions in the community.
And last year, several students from an accounting class received training and certification to help community members complete and file their tax forms.
Students’ level of commitment continually amazes Sweeney. He points to one junior who approached him with the idea of making parents more aware of the financial education programs. Not only did the student compose a letter to parents, but he also offered to include his personal email address so parents could contact him to obtain a student’s perspective.
CORE Federal’s financial literacy efforts are a “natural fit,” Sweeney says, with the East Syracuse Minoa Central High School curriculum, which emphasizes both college preparation and hands-on vocational learning experiences. But Sweeney firmly believes a similar program can work in any high school.
“So long as you have some type of finance-oriented class that could be a partner to run a student credit union, that’s all you need,” he says.
Resources can be a limiting factor. CORE Federal operates three branches with a 25-person staff, with one employee dedicated entirely to financial literacy efforts. Often that’s not enough, according to Sweeney.
“When the kids approach us with great ideas,” he says, “we want to see those through. So in a way we’re a victim of our own success, which I’ll never complain about. It’s amazing to see what these kids have done.”
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