Money management, financial help available

By Gus Bode

For the Daily Egyptian

Ebony Donelson, a junior studying elementary education, is doing her part to warn incoming freshmen of the dangers of mismanaging their finances.

During a recent Student Orientation Advisement Registration day, Donelson and her fellow SOAR staffers performed a skit in front of more than 500 parents and new students highlighting mistakes young people often make with credit cards.

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The skit was humorous; its message was not.

“We want to prevent students from building up a lot of debt and the pain and sorrow that comes later when they have to pay it off,” Donelson said.

The SOAR program is just one of many on campus that touches on money management education and budgeting. The goal is to get students to act responsibly with their personal finances and avoid the pitfalls of over-spending, high-interest debt, late payments and other actions that not only increase their stress levels but damage their credit rating, a score that could one day prove more important than their grade point average.

Stress is the number one issue affecting academic performance, said Chris Labyk, assistant director of the Wellness Center.

“They may not attend or find it hard to pay attention in class, which can interfere with their academic success,” Labyk said, adding that relationships and finances are two leading causes of stress.

When the stressor is money related, the center refers students to the Financial Aid Office, the number one resource on campus for locating money to pay for school.

Three of four students at SIUC receive some form of financial assistance – in the form of grants, scholarships, tuition waivers, assistantships, student employment and loans. Assistance totaled about $177 million last year.

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Institutional programs, such as student employment, assistantships, stipends and waivers, are growing at a faster pace than other financial assistance on campus, said Donna Williams, interim director of the Financial Aid Office. She attributes that to increases in the minimum wage, as well as assistance stipends.

“As tuition increases, waivers are covering that tuition and those dollar amounts increase. The charges are going up, so the value of the waivers goes up,” Williams said.

More than 6,000 students work on campus each year, usually about 10 to 20 hours a week. To apply for campus employment, students must have a processed Free Application for Federal Student Aid on file. Students do not have to qualify for financial aid in order to work on campus, and open positions are listed on the office’s Web site at www.siu.edu/~fao.jobs.

In addition to information and assistance with scholarship, grant and loan applications, financial aid counselors offer money-management tips designed to get students to think ahead.

Financial aid is processed for the entire semester. If students are eligible for a refund, they receive it at the beginning of the semester, with the assumption that they will make it last until the end of the semester, said Richard Steudel, the Financial Aid Office’s assistant director.

“For many students, that is a very difficult thing to manage. Budget is an alien word,” said Steudel, who serves as an instructor for a section of University 101, a class that covers budgeting principles.

SIUC offers a three-hour elective course, University 101, in the fall for freshmen. It’s designed to assist them in making the transition from high school to college, and one class session deals with money management.

“Transformation is the key aspect. This is not Grade 13. If they limped along with poor self-management skills in high school, they are not going to make it here,” said Virginia Rinella, director of Pre-Major Advisement and one of the course’s instructors.

The personal finance session looks at managing a checking account, paying bills, using credit cards and learning to save. The course tries to get them to think of ways to keep themselves out of trouble while in college.

“We talk about making a need list and a want list,” Rinella said. “I ask them, ‘What do you really need?’ It’s usually the want list that gets students into trouble.”

When the trouble leads to phone calls from creditors threatening legal action, students can turn to Students’ Legal Assistance.

Steven Rogers, director of Students’ Legal Assistance, sees about 10 to 12 financial cases a month. The reasons vary, from students who have gotten in over their heads with credit cards or other debt and can’t pay the bills, to those who have been involved in automobile accidents or have medical and other bills their insurance only partially covers.

Then there are the cases involving landlords.

“Be careful who you select to live with,” Rogers warned. Several people signing on the same lease is very common, but if one or two of the roommates doesn’t pay, it falls to the others on the lease to do so.

The students who did pay their share often fight this, even though they signed a legal agreement to be responsible for the total amount of rent, Rogers said.

“It may get turned over to a collection agency, and then they have court costs and late charges,” he said.

Rogers cautions students to pay attention to the details, especially before signing any legal contract. Read and understand all documents before signing, including credit card agreements where the fine print spells out penalties and fees.

“How many people who take out credit cards carefully go over the contracts? Even when they are offered an attractive rate, there are many things in the contract that can trigger that rate rising to double or more what it normally is,” said Rogers, an attorney who has worked with the legal assistance office since 1981.

Enrolled students who have paid their fees are eligible to use Students’ Legal Assistance, however, an appointment is needed because legal advice is never discussed over the telephone, Rogers said. Call 618-536-6677 to schedule an appointment.

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