At a time when student loan debt is becoming an increasing burden to graduates, and the cost of living in Maryland and in the D.C. area is on the rise, a new program in the Department of Economics is helping both junior high school students and college students gain skills in personal finance and economic planning.
The Financial Literacy Outreach and Training (FLOAT) program is a student-run organization supported by the Department of Economics. After a successful pilot year, ECON will expand the program in the fall of 2019 and beyond. Sixteen undergraduates have already committed to participating in the program during the 2019-2020 academic year.
In the fall, UMD students undergo on-campus training in personal finance skills and pedagogy. Ketsia Massé, a graduate student from the College of Education who is pursuing a master’s degree in Minority and Urban Education, helps students develop lesson plans, and a faculty member from the Department of Economics helps students deepen their understanding of financial literacy.
In the spring, the students serve in local Title I middle schools to deliver engaging lesson plans in a 6-week program. Through class activities and customized curriculum, youth are exposed to the principles of borrowing, saving, spending, and investing in future success.
“The middle school students really respond to the knowledge and experience shared by the college students. They look up to people who are just a few years older than them and find their advice relevant and accessible. The UMD students have been very open about sharing both some of the successes they have had and some of the mistakes they’ve made,” said Dr. Cindy Clement, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics. “Through FLOAT, UMD students are developing skills concerning how to connect with people and teach them about personal finance. These are skills that will help UMD students in any career going forward, particularly in the fields of finance and education.”
J’Zhane Dobson, a rising senior majoring in economics, said that the middle school students she is working with are learning advanced skills that many people might not typically think about until later in life.
“They responded most to the information about the different accounts banks and credit unions offer. Even at the end of the program, the students retained much of the information from that lesson alone,” Dobson said.
Noah Flater, a UMD student who taught FLOAT lessons, said that his students were most responsive to lessons when they involved real-world applications of the content covered during the lessons.
"For example, we did an activity during a lesson on budgeting where students were presented with a list of items—things like new clothes, a cell phone, fast food, a Netflix subscription—and tell us whether they thought the item was a 'need' or a 'want'. These types of activities stirred up a lot of good conversation with the students, and helped to keep them engaged in lessons that might otherwise have lost their attention," Flater said.
Teachers say the middle school students are motivated and energized by the work.
“They enjoy it! They are learning new concepts they've never heard of before,” said Makayla Johnson, a social studies teacher at College Park Academy.
In turn, the UMD students are gaining skills and having a rewarding experience.
“Going into the classroom and teaching the students was the reason I joined this program. In the beginning of the program we were preparing for this, so actually doing it was rewarding, and it’s what I value the most,” Dobson said.
The program has been developed and inspired in many ways by Rahila Olanrewaju, a rising senior and Head of Operations at FLOAT. Olanrewaju blended her passion for diversity and education with her interest in economics to bring FLOAT to campus.
The idea first stemmed from her position as an At-Large Representative on the BSOS Dean’s Student Advisory Council, where she was responsible for either analyzing existing initiatives at the University or strategizing new initiatives with the guidance of faculty members and peers on the council.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Olanrewaju first began considering the importance of financial literacy when her family relocated to the United States.
“Navigating a new country with a new financial system was challenging,” said Olanrewaju. “In creating the FLOAT program and choosing to partner with Title I schools, my goal was to reach students like me; students who come from immigrant backgrounds or low-income households and might not readily have access to financial education. It is my hope that FLOAT empowers youth with tools to become financially astute, not only for themselves but also for the families and communities who raised them.”
Olanrewaju, who is pursuing majors in Economics and Government and Politics with a concentration in International Relations, has further realized through her studies the importance of educating young people about finances before they are faced with crucial financial decisions.
“FLOAT is important because it gives youth an opportunity to learn about financial wellness before they have to make challenging, at times painful, financial decisions,” Olanrewaju said.
While the program operates through ECON, it is open to students of all academic backgrounds as long as they fulfill the necessary prerequisites.
When Olanrewaju first launched the program, FLOAT included three faculty members, one graduate student, and seven undergraduates in total; three who worked in operations and four who served as financial literacy teachers at College Park Academy. Olanrewaju predicts that the program will grow into a larger organization with five students working in operations and at least 18 students teaching in two middle schools during the 2019-2020 academic year.
“FLOAT is truly a team effort, and that's because financial wellness is not something that affects individuals in isolation of others. The decisions we make as a community have significant effects on the macroeconomy,” Olanrewaju said. “FLOAT provides students with an opportunity to take action, and drive the change they want to see in the United States, at both a community and national level.”
This story was originally published on June 5, 2019.