How the University of North Texas (UNT) helps students succeed financially

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 Understanding basic money management skills like living within a budget and understanding credit and debt is very important to all students especially during the early stages of their college careers. The financial choices they make today can have long-term effects on their personal and professional lives. The University of North Texas (UNT) provides its students with the tools and resources they need to make better financial decisions today, so they can make good money management decision once they’re out in the workforce.


Rachel GrimesEdmit recently spoke with Rachel Grimes who serves as the assistant director of financial readiness at UNT. Rachel is an Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) and was AFCPE’s Financial Counselor of the Year in 2017. She provides financial counseling to students at the Student Money Management Center, which is a Division of the Student Affairs department at UNT.

Edmit: What is the purpose of the Student Money Management Center at UNT?

Grimes: Our goal at the Student Money Management Center is to help students succeed in their financial lives. The Center provides students with tools to increase their knowledge, skills, awareness and confidence to become financially empowered. Students can schedule confidential one-on-one financial coaching sessions and request outreach programming using our website. The coaching sessions cover a number of financial topics, including how to pay for college, budgeting, debt management, covering costs for studying abroad, credit management, and student loan repayment options. There are some instances where students consider seeking part-time work to help offset their living expenses. The topics are endless! Our staff actively listens to students and specifically addresses the concerns of each student. Our goal is to ensure they leave every session with a customized action plan with specific deadlines to help them meet their goals and priorities.

Edmit: What other programs and services does the Center offer?

Grimes: Our Financial Readiness team provides more than 200 events and programs every academic year to students on three campuses. Outreach is defined as any activity outside our office, like class presentations, residence halls talks, tabling on the Library Mall, and speaking at student organization meetings. Our team offers workshops, presentations and tabling events at least once a week. Wherever students are, we will be there! Our Center also offers eligible students funding support through an emergency aid program. The purpose of the emergency aid program is to help students address unanticipated or emergency-related expenses threatening their enrollment. The Center also conducts Mean Green Money podcasts, which cover a number of discussions aimed at improving student financial wellness. Some podcasts discuss ways to cut grocery expenses, effectively run a business as a student and available insurance options. We also have a student peer-mentoring program, which one of our students recently won a first place award at the annual IARFC Financial Planning Competition. We’re very proud!

Edmit: What are some of the topics you address with students in your financial coaching sessions?

Grimes: We discuss a wide range of topics, because it is the students who determine which topics are discussed. The most common topics addressed during coaching sessions include budgeting, creating a money plan, transitioning planning after graduation, moving off campus, scholarship resources, managing student loans, and planning the financial commitments to student abroad. We have also discussed the importance of developing good communication with their parents and clarifying who is responsible for what with regard to college costs. We help students better clarify details with their parents. For instance, getting clarification if a parent says to the student that they’re going to pay tuition or not to worry about the payment deadline. Getting clarification on the who, what, when of finances is very important. We encourage parents to allow their sons and daughters to take responsibility for completing the FAFSA, understanding the financial aid process, submitting documentation on time, and understanding new financial responsibilities and processes.  

Edmit: Can you describe the resource gap that often occurs after the student matriculates and how best to close the gap?

Grimes: The resource gap is money. Money that students need to pay for cost of attendance expenses such as tuition, fees, textbooks, and living costs. Many students and families do not look past the immediate semester. This can create a resource gap when students and families do not approach the financial responsibilities inherent with the attainment of a college degree with a long-term mindset. We help students become more strategic and intentional in the financial decisions they make from their first semester to their last. We encourage students to talk with their parents or the individual involved in their financial life at least once a semester to discuss any financial challenges or opportunities. The winter holiday break in December is a great time to have this conversation about the spring semester. Talking in the summer will help with the fall semester. In some instances, parents are committed to financially helping their students during the first year, but are unable to continue to do so for subsequent years. For these students it is vital to consistently have conversations about planning the money side of college.

Edmit: What steps has the Center taken to encourage students to take advantage of all your resources?


Grimes: We have a strong and ever-growing network of collaborative partnerships with on-campus departments and off-campus community organizations. We are fortunate to have close working relationships with the university’s financial aid and student accounting offices. I believe our center is the only financial education program in the country that is included as a resource in the Financial Aid Notification every financial aid recipient receives from our financial aid office. We are a point-of-contact if students have questions about their awards or looking to prepare a budget. We get many coaching referrals from the academic advising offices throughout the university’s colleges. In addition, we use every conceivable communication medium to reach students. From emails distributed through the student email system, to posting yard signs throughout campus and sending notifications through social media like Twitter. However we can communicate with students we will use it!


Edmit: What is FIT and FIT PLUS?


We created Financial Intelligence Training (FIT) to help students understand foundational money management topics like goal setting, budgeting, and debt. Today the course is comprised of three one-hour classroom sessions capped with a personal coaching session. By student demand for an advanced course we created Financial Intelligence Training PLUS (FIT+) for students interested in learning more about investing, navigating the investment world, types of investment products, basics of stocks and bonds, and how to build a portfolio.


Edmit: What types of enticement strategies has the Center used to increase student attendance to your events?  


Grimes: Food, money, and free stuff. Seriously, given that free time is a rare commodity for many of our students we need to find ways to encourage students to choose to attend our events. For example, we will provide lunch for a workshop that occurs during the lunch hour. We had a resource table at the Mean Green Fling – a campus-wide event at the beginning of the fall semester – where students were offered a free barbecue dinner. We created Club BIGI (Bank It. Grow It) as a virtual savings club with the goal to help motivate, encourage and inspire students to save $500 by the end of the spring semester. Students who attend any Center event and who are members of CLUB BIGI are entered into monthly prize drawings. There is also an end-of-semester drawing. Club members who attend coaching sessions also increase their chances in the drawings. To date we have more than 500 club members. This spring semester the Center was able offer a big cash prize of $300 to one lucky CLUB BIGI member. The $300 was made possible through a grant received from Cashcourse NEFE.


Edmit: Do you include discussions about each student’s personal, financial and professional goals in your financial coaching sessions?


Grimes: Most definitely. We help students see how personal decisions, financial goals, and professional goals are inherently related to one another. For example with students considering graduate school we discuss how obtaining an advanced degree can affect their earning potential; how borrowing additional graduate school loans may increase their monthly loan repayment amounts; how an increase in student loan debt may influence other personal financial goals when they graduate. The future becomes the present far too quickly, so it is important for students to understand the importance that actions today can have ramifications for years to come.


Edmit:  How does the Center monitor how effective it is in meeting the student’s needs and expectations? Have you noticed a change in the financial habits of students over time?


Grimes: We assess everything we do. We are proud that every team member supports the Center’s assessment efforts. Today our assessment efforts are providing our outreach and coaching teams with real-time data. Our teams can adjust and adapt to student feedback throughout the academic year instead of waiting for the typical end-of-year findings report. For our financial coaching sessions, students complete a pre-assessment before the coaching session and then a post assessment following the session. Both assessments are based on a 1 to 5 Likert Scale where students rank how financially stressed they were prior to the session and their stress level following the session. Results over the last three years have shown a significant decrease in students’ financial stress from the beginning to completion of their sessions. This is one data point that makes our entire team proud. All of our assessment methodologies allow for the capture of both quantitative and qualitative data. While empirical evidence of the positive impact we are making in the lives of students is important, it is the student testimonials that speak so eloquently for the personal impact we are providing students. We also use evaluations for our outreach programming, especially our classroom presentations. Students have an opportunity to recommend money topics on the form, which our outreach team will often channel into new workshops and programs the next semester. This semester we are conducting focus groups with both users and non-users. From our first focus group of users we have gained great insights into opportunities to improve our marketing materials and messages. Effectively meeting students’ needs and expectations is a constant. Assessment provides the fuel for the engine of creativity behind our ability to provide an ever-growing array of relevant topics to students. Every program and service needs to begin and end with assessment.


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