When the GAO Calls, People Listen—and Speak Up

The need for financial education continues, and CUs will continue to fill that need.

June 1, 2011

So when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called earlier this spring seeking feedback from CUNA’s personal finance department about financial literacy, we were all ears and, well, mouthy, too.

We told them credit unions have been providing financial education materials and instruction to their members for at least 50 years. We know that because that’s when CUNA started distributing resources to credit unions and their members, first with Everybody’s Money, a quarterly digest magazine, and later with a host of online, print, and in-person materials often segmented by life stage—just as you segment marketing to members.

The GAO conducted its study as part of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The agency was trying to determine a) whether financial literacy training works, and b) the feasibility of certifying financial literacy service providers.

After reviewing 29 separate studies, GAO found “no one approach, delivery mechanism, or technology constitutes a best practice.”

GAO did find successful financial education programs are timely (relevant), accessible, culturally sensitive, and include an evaluation component.

In fact, the study said the most effective approaches may include a mix of options—suggesting that any one provider that thinks its all-in-one program can be all things to all age (and demographic) groups is kidding itself—and you.

When it came to evaluating whether providers should be certified and whether the federal government should provide that Good Housekeeping stamp of approval, the GAO correctly noted that federal certification would require significant staff and financial resources at a time when, frankly, there’s not much political will (or money) to make that happen.

It was refreshing to note that the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a program CUNA, the state leagues and foundations, and the Co-Op Network have put their collective muscle behind since 2000, was cited throughout the report (pdf).

Susan Tiffany
Susan Tiffany

NEFE was among the first to have independent verification that its High School Financial Planning Program could significantly improve students’ financial knowledge, behavior, and confidence.

Philip Heckman
Philip Heckman

In reading the GAO’s report, it was also interesting how many of the findings were things that CUNA’s participants in the GAO study—Susan Tiffany, director of online consumer periodicals, and Philip Heckman, director of financial education product development and delivery—shared with the interviewers:

  • Make the information relevant, using just-in-time delivery across a variety of formats: in person, print, or online;
  • Focus on changing attitudes and behaviors;
  • Learn best by doing;
  • Don’t rule out new delivery mechanisms that may not even exist yet;
  • Make employees join 401(k) programs to guard against complacency; and
  • Measure results with pre- and post-testing.

When asked if the government should oversee accreditation, CUNA’s representatives opted to recommend colleges and universities instead, worrying that government oversight might stifle creativity—and look like another regulatory burden for credit unions that have been providing financial education to members for many, many years.

The GAO report now goes to the banking/finance committees of the Senate and House where it will be reviewed and evaluated. But one thing is certain: The need for financial education continues. And credit unions will continue to fill that need.

JAMES HANSON is vice president of CUNA’s business-to-consumer publishing department.