Chasing Away College Debt

Just by paying attention to spending and saving tips, students can win monetary prizes while gaining financial literacy with Bull2Bull.

Ready to help and eager to award $500 to a lucky student are Team Manager James Wilson, Graduate Assistant Tyler Schmidt, Peer Educators Shane Mangold, Maurice Brewton, Eliana Lozano Perez, Philip Gelia and Calen Nazar with Assistant Director Martine Koné.

Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 22, 2014) – College students are equating higher education with debt now more than ever and at USF – a ”best value” university – keeping debt at a minimum is a priority.

Martine Koné, assistant director of Financial Education@USF, is working every day to bring home that message.

Koné began her battle for the hearts, minds and budgets of USF students at the beginning of fall semester with the launch of the Bull2Bull (B2B) Financial Education@USF program. Her goal is to move students to financial literacy and awareness. A B2B monetary incentive is making that awareness all the more desirable.

“We’re offering $500 in loan repayment funds periodically to one lucky person throughout the semester for simply attending information sessions on various topics such as budgeting and saving and credit awareness,” Koné said. “We randomly pick someone from Twitter. To be entered and eligible to win, you have to have attended, signed in and filled out an evaluation form. We randomly pick one of our Twitter followers.”

B2B makes it worthwhile to stay in touch.

“We use our Facebook page and Twitter feed to disseminate tips and information people can use in their daily lives. We are always tweeting about free incentives on campus, financial tips and Twitter is where we reveal the scholarship or repayment recipient.”

Koné’s office just came into being last April to gear up for each new semester’s 25-minute sessions for students and two-hour sessions for their parents during University Experience orientation. That’s their first exposure to B2B’s information on how to manage money during the college years. Koné particularly wants to get across to students and their parents the importance of financial responsibility while in college.

“Bright Futures Scholarships for example fund 120 hours and it’s very easy to exhaust those funds simply by adding, dropping or repeating courses if not absolutely necessary. Our program encourages students to seek guidance from their academic advisor and the office of financial aid prior to making these decisions,” she explains.

The need to “tighten up”

Koné understands what it’s like to be a college student with responsibilities having been in the same situation herself when she was in college.

“They’re trying to maintain or create this exciting new life with their financial aid. But rather than spend money on an Xbox, save the money for unexpected expenses. Rather than eat out every day, recognize that having a meal plan means you don’t eat out often, if you can help it. Rather than buy coffee and bottled water every day, use the free drinking water stations using a refillable bottle or a cup. Use coupons in The Oracle for various local businesses and the movies. Our office is here to establish good financial practices. Little things add up!

“With the changes in financial aid awards, you have to pace yourself. Years ago, students were more timid about taking out loans, now it is very rare to meet a student without them and they are more open to getting student loans,” she said, adding, “When you’re smarter about money, you make better decisions.”

Busy students aren’t typically looking for budgeting information, though they are usually interested in ways to stretch their dollars. So Koné makes it as easy as possible for students to access the information B2B provides. B2B goes to them.

Koné has partnered with housing, Honors College and the living/learning communities to provide information sessions right where students live. She also routinely reaches out to professors who are willing to offer ways for their students to earn extra credit through attending information sessions.

The Bull2Bull peer educators can be found at Bull Market every Wednesday with information, free gifts and opportunities to get in the running for the big prize.

B2B peer educators offer one-on-one counseling in SVC 2054. They also can be found at a table in Bull Market each Wednesday equipped with a wheel that students can spin to win prizes such as tee shirts, water bottles, coupons for free meals and more. All of the services are free and confidential.

In these varied settings B2B covers such things as debt management, how to read and understand credit reports, how to budget and how to use the online cost calculator where students can enter detailed financial data and put a monthly and semester-long dollar figure on what school is costing them.

Koné also enjoys introducing students to her “envelope system.”

“I recommend putting specific amounts of money for specific things in separate envelopes and only spend what you’ve budgeted. I implemented an ‘office challenge’ for the peer educators using the envelope system. I feel that it is important that they become familiar with the practices that we present to the student body. Even if it’s only a dollar a week, it works.”

Students who run into unexpected financial need sometimes qualify for emergency short-term loans. They must have a source of income and no outstanding debt and there is a definite repayment deadline.

“We’re here to help,” Koné says and points out, “you have to know your limits and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of focusing on finishing in four years.”

Less time spent, less owed

It’s been calculated that for every semester a student extends enrollment, he or she is adding approximately $10,000 to what it costs to obtain a degree. And every day away from full time employment adds to the losses.

Koné’s advice is, “Take 15 credits every semester and graduate in 4 years. There are consequences associated with dropping courses; however, academic services are here to guide the decisions. Essentially we encourage the student to stay focused, get the degree in the allotted time. You’ll reduce debt, accelerate your graduation and launch your career. The less time you spend here, the less you will owe.”

By the time graduation comes around it’s time for a loan exit counseling seminar designed to give students the opportunity to learn about their student loan repayment options. There are seven to nine payment plans to choose from and repayment amounts are based on income. There is even loan forgiveness for certain professions. Attendance at one of the seminars fulfills the federal requirement.

Koné and her staff make sure that the money owed does not come as a surprise.

“We prepare a personalized loan report, how much was borrowed, and break it down into a payment schedule,” she explained. “Now we all understand that things can change, so we want you to establish good relationships with your loan servicer. Most people run into trouble because they’re running away from problems. If they know you’re having trouble making payments, we want students to know the lenders are not out to get them. They will work with you.”

The default rate among USF students is below the national average – 9.8 versus 13.4 percent. The state-wide rate is even higher, at 16.2 percent.

Koné has been working in higher education for almost a decade and has an understanding of the financial issues faced in college.

“I’ve noticed two kinds of students, those who understand and those who are oblivious. They have the same types of concerns and we are here to cater to both. Either way, it’s all about good practices and good habits.”

For more information on how to find and use Financial Education@USF services, click here or visit . You can also email the office at or call (813) 974-6111.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563