Syracuse University Magazine

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Loan education specialist Rebecca Rose leads a financial literacy seminar.

Photo by Steve Sartori



'I Otto Know This!' Program

Takes Mystery out of Loan Process

By his sophomore year, School of Information Studies student Patrick Ebo ’11 had borrowed nearly $20,000 in direct consumer loans that carry higher interest rates than student loans distributed through the University. With two jobs and a full schedule of classes, Ebo says he was on the verge of leaving school to reduce the amount of debt he’d incur. Fortunately, during the second semester of his sophomore year, Ebo was accepted into SU’s Money Awareness Program (MAP), which exchanges the private loan obligations of financially struggling students for grant funds. “I credit the program with giving me the chance to be here my last two years,” he says. 

When Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice president for enrollment management in the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Programs, saw the increasing number of students working and over-borrowing just to stay in school, she led the effort to reach out to those whose debt profile could be troublesome in the short and long runs. An outgrowth of Syracuse Responds—a midyear fund-raising effort to assist students who were in danger of withdrawing from the University at the height of the financial crisis in fall 2008—MAP was launched in spring 2009, marking the start of a new wave of financial literacy at SU. “As we saw the global financial crisis unfolding before our eyes, we knew we needed to take action to help students and families that were likely to feel the impact most,” Chancellor Nancy Cantor says. “Syracuse Responds was designed to provide short-term, immediate support, but we knew we could do more for the longer term by helping students build financial skills. Youlonda, with her experience as a national leader in financial aid policy, was exactly the right person to spearhead our efforts.”  

That semester MAP provided grant assistance to 50 students who had borrowed excessive amounts in loans.  In return, the students were required to attend a financial literacy seminar every semester. “Last year, we went up to 131 students,” says loan education specialist Rebecca Rose. “The need has been very great to help these students out. And the response has been very positive.”

In April, the office launched a new program, “I Otto Know This!”—a more comprehensive version of MAP designed to make students and their parents more financially savvy. The program consists of grants, including the MAP funding, and financial seminars that educate students on loan management and other financial concerns they may have. The financial aid office also sends out monthly e-newsletters with advice columns on different subjects. In September, for instance, Rose wrote a column about the difference between using bank ATM cards as debit or credit. In addition, SU has adopted a new software program to teach students how to manage loans and credit scores during and after college. “When students have overwhelming debt burdens, they worry,” Copeland-Morgan says. “Students who have excessive debt burdens are also working a lot.”

The financial aid office would love to give grants to every student, but it’s just not financially possible, Copeland-Morgan says. So, SU partnered with USA Funds, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial literacy, to implement Life Skills, a software program every SU student can use. Life Skills offers a buffet-style lesson plan in areas of budgeting, credit scores, and loan management. While students are not required to participate, Copeland-Morgan says the office is promoting the program every way it can. “We’re trying to reach all of our students—young and old, graduates and undergraduates—to say, ‘You need to think about finances,’” she says.

The financial literacy program kept Ebo—and many other students—on the path to graduation. “Usually when you enter school as a freshman, you’ve taken all these loans, but you’re not very educated on where the money comes from,” Ebo says. “Now, I can definitely say I’ve learned how to handle my finances from being in the program.”  —Sierra Jiminez