University Communications | February 12, 2008

A number of UA researchers, attempting to understand how college-age students spend and save their money, are launching a project that should span 22 years.

Soyeon Shim, director of the UA’s John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, says the reasons why students misuse credit are not completely understood.

Concern and curiosity led a number of University of Arizona researchers and administrators to begin a pioneering study to look at students’ spending and saving habits, beginning with the current freshman class.

The project, called Arizona Pathways to Life Success for University Students, will be no small endeavor. The team's plans span 22 years.

The project team includes UA School of Family and Consumer Sciences researchers and administrators in Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. Together, they are working with various units on campus to sign up at least 2,000 students to take a 15-minute survey about their spending habits.

“You can see that this project is really the launching pad for us. We don’t know how far this could take us,” said Joyce Serido, the project manager. “It’s an ambitious goal.”

By spring break, which begins March 15, the group wants to have between 2,000 and 3,000 students on board. And, beginning Feb. 18, the survey will be available for students to take on the Web.

“That’s how we’ll understand how the demands of college, friendships, peer support and peer pressure contribute to or diminish financial behavior,” Serido added. “This is an incredible opportunity for the University all the way around, and particularly for our freshmen.”

During the project’s initial two years, which are funded by a nearly $210,000 grant from the National Endowment of Financial Education, researchers will attempt to explain in great detail how good financial habits are born, how students spend their money and ways the swipe-happy credit card practice may be ruining the lives of some.

“In the past five to 10 years, the use – or misuse – of credit cards and the promotion of credit cards have increased substantially. It’s almost become a ritual on campus when the freshmen arrive,” said Soyeon Shim, director of the UA’s John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Shim also said that reliance on credit cards signals a lifestyle choice and can result in more liberties and convenience.

Though she noted that “without credit, you can’t function in the marketplace,” Shim and her colleagues are questioning why certain students misuse credit.

Building On Prior Knowledge

The new project builds upon a 2006 pilot study whose results were released in November. UA professors behind the study, which focused on UA students, found that those with better financial behaviors tend to lead “a better life."

Other findings of the project, which surveyed 781 UA undergraduates, suggested:

  • Undergraduates do a better job managing cash than credit and savings accounts.
  • Seniors, in particular, appear to be more careless about how they handle their credit. This is even more common among those students who are first-generation, live off campus or take fewer credit hours. When it comes to savings, those who are receiving financial aid or are non-business majors are generally worse off.

That’s not to say that all University graduates leave campus with financial problems, said Shim, also one of the principal investigators on the UA project. “Some graduate with no problem.”

But why?

Finding answers requires a longitudinal study, Shim said. “The pilot study really opened our eyes about the real issues students are facing. We have a lot of questions for the new study.”

The team wants to know ways financial habits may contribute to reasons students leave the UA or if they can affect student health, satisfaction with school and life.

Understanding the Dynamics

Ultimately, the researchers want to figure out ways to predict financial and life success.

Consider the implications.

  • A database of information of this kind could help educators and campus administration, particularly in the area of recruitment and retention, Shim said.
  • It could help parents figure out ways to talk about money management with their children and help them develop positive values and attitudes about money, Shim added. Conversely, it could help students and young adults figure out how to be more responsible about their spending.
  • And policymakers could also find value in such detail when debating policies that have a direct affect on student financing and funding.
  • Employers could also benefit by information that helps them understand shifting social and financial values they see in their employees.

The University has a number of programs and offices that study spending habits or work to educate students and the public about credit and savings, such as Credit Wise Cats and Take Charge America Institute for Consumer Financial Education and Research. The UA is also offering a course titled “Money, Consumers and Family.”

But a long range, comprehensive study is necessary to understand some of the larger and, sometimes, unrecognizable challenges and issues students face.

“We need to understand more about these dynamics and help students to understand,” Shim said. “They’re emerging into adulthood. What they practice here can stay with them forever.”

Story Contacts:

Soyeon Shim

School of Family and Consumer Sciences

520-621-7147

Melissa Vito

Student Affairs

520-621-0963