Walking the Walk: Deepening Moneythink’s Commitment to Racial Equity through Education + Action

protest signs from Oakland's Juneteenth Black Lives Matter rally

A note from Joshua Lachs, Moneythink’s CEO

Bringing our Mission to Life

Moneythink’s decade-long focus on empowering traditionally under-served and marginalized high school and college students inspires us to be a strong force for good. Our youth-centered financial capability work has uplifted and fueled tens of thousands of students these last 12 years. In many ways we can proudly say that our social justice mission, underscored with our human-centered design approach and explicit DEI value set, speaks for itself. And we take seriously our responsibility to serve many more students, families, and communities — putting them on the path to economic mobility and social capital as we aspire to help shape a more equitable and inclusive economy.

Parallel to our student-focused mission, we also recognize that building an even more equitable and inclusive workplace is now paramount. One of the main reasons why I was so drawn to join Moneythink was because of the premium it has placed on DEI. From the get go, our co-founders embedded a social justice framework into our culture. This has been demonstrated through a variety of ways through the years. And yet… we know that there’s so much more that we can and should do.

So, what might it look like if we set the bar even higher? What would it look like if we took the next steps to deeply enhance our cultural contexts, knowledge, and know-how so that we have a more nuanced — and better — understanding of the communities we serve, all the while fostering a team that actually practices continuous learning? What if we prioritized and invested in ongoing professional development activities that puts racial justice work at the center? And, in turn, how might this help enable us to make more informed, more holistic organizational decisions while simultaneously furthering our own growth, as individuals, to become more active agents of the change?

protesters hold signs in san francisco's oromo protest
What if we aimed even higher?

We recognize that to help fight against and ultimately abolish racism and its consequential impacts that we’ve seen play out throughout society — including healthcare, jobs, education, housing, food security, the environment — we must start with ourselves as accountable individuals and as an accountable organization aligned in working towards the same goal. We have a responsibility to both ourselves as a team and to our broader communities to inspire and mobilize by example in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Here’s What We’re Doing:

After the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Talyor, and Ahmaud Abery, it was clear we needed to do more than put out a public statement (which we did). We needed and wanted action. And we needed to do something, immediately. As I reflected on my own thoughts and feelings, I decided to make key investments in our team members’ growth and the organization, overall, that when combined, would help accelerate our work towards solution-building. Here’s where we’re starting:

Education and Reflection

Foundational to our DEI commitment, Moneythink is dedicating ourselves to individual and collective learning. The intersection of race, class, systems, gender, and power in America have a direct impact on whom we primarily serve and how we can even more proactively fuel students’ education and career trajectories as we strive to help shape a new, equitable reality.

Reading and Reflection Paid Time Off

In order to help create the time and space for our respective learning, Moneythink designates a monthly “reading and reflection” day, to be observed on the last Friday of each month.

A critical part of this work is to ensure that we have a common knowledge and clear vocabulary to better understand the nuanced social norms that were designed to create and maintain power structures in the US.

Beyond supporting our employees’ education and reflection with one paid day per month, Moneythink also pledges to purchase up to 3 books per staff member.

Our intention is to enhance learning, inspire reflection, and fuel deeper conversations with others focused on race, class, gender, and power in America. Moneythink staff are also encouraged to gift the completed books to friends and family in the spirit of paying it forward — all to help develop, within our personal networks, a more common and clearer vocabulary centered on racial justice.

Community and Civic Engagement

1-week Racial Justice Sabbatical

To support our employees showing up in their communities, Moneythink will grant each team member one week each year to engage in community and civic engagement with outside organizations and/or related causes centered on racial justice work in support of Black and Brown individuals and communities.

This dedicated time is intended to connect with others in the field, participate hands-on on racial justice activities, and inspire forward-looking ideas that we believe deepen our own work and better position our organization in driving powerful and transformative change. Following their sabbatical, each team member will deliver a brief presentation highlighting their work, project, or initiative, key learnings, and offer ideas for our own organizational growth.

We believe on-the-ground knowledge and experience with other community organizations are vital to crafting effective strategies that can move broader communities towards racial equity.

Juneteenth Observance

Every year, starting last month, Moneythink acknowledges and celebrates Juneteenth (the 19th of June) as an organization-wide holiday.

We will continue to strongly encourage our team members to use the paid time off to engage in their choice of community service on that day.

Strengthening our Diversity

Outside of our employee benefits, Moneythink makes the following pledges to advance racial equity within our team composition:

  1. Ensure that our current and future Black and Brown colleagues continue to play a prominent role in shaping and leading our mission forward
  2. Continue to proactively recruit qualified Black and Brown individuals for future Board seats
  3. Proactively source and recruit qualified Black and Brown individuals, as well as other people of color, when hiring for new staff and contractors
  4. Focus on bringing our broader vision to life: ensuring that traditionally under-served communities have greater pathways to economic mobility and social capital through high quality, affordable higher education opportunities

This is Not the Time to be Lazy or Inactive:

The myriad of generations-long interconnected challenges does not come with easy, quick solutions. But we have to start somewhere. And we must start now.

Equipping ourselves and a new generation of students and leaders to advance equity and opportunity for all requires unlearning, continuous new learning, ongoing commitment, and difficult work. We all have a part to play in eliminating structural racism. Aware of our own roles in perpetuating the reality of systemic inequality, we believe that the above-named commitments will help us become even more understanding of the communities we empower — forging our path to help achieve racial justice, social equality and equity, and economic inclusion.

This is all the more reason why we have no time to waste. Fortunately, our organizational DNA — grounded in diversity, equity, and inclusion — provides us with the guide rails to move forward using empathy, humility, compassion, and fierce determination to help bring about a just society for all.

protestors applaud a speaker at downtown Oakland's Juneteenth  2020 protest

The Other Side of College Success: Advisor Resources for Data-Driven Conversations

Helping college advisors make data-driven decisions

A recent survey found that over half of Black and Hispanic/Latinx parents of high school students are reporting changes in their child’s post high-school plans, compared to 43% for white parents. Those changes include deferring a year when colleges allow it, or changing decisions on which college to go to. The same survey found that less than half of students plan to go to a four-year college, which is down from 7% only a month ago. If you were wondering if it makes sense for students to go to an all-online college in the fall, consider a recent survey that shows 33% of high school seniors would rather defer or cancel admittance.

Why Moneythink cares about this issue

Moneythink’s mission is to dramatically increase the number of historically underrepresented students graduating with postsecondary degrees while carrying little to no financial burden.

A core focus of our work—and why our agile, student-first team is so committed to our model—is to help students and their families understand the intersection between affordability and overall fit as early as possible in the college search process. With our technology, content, and senior financial aid advisor brainpower, we help students determine which schools offer the best VALUE and understand how to pay for it responsibly, setting them up for success. At Moneythink, success is not as simple as students completing their college path with a degree, though that is a tremendous part of it and a huge enough barrier by itself. We believe that success goes beyond students’ college years and should be defined by the completion of a degree without the unnecessary financial stressors that plague millions of low-income and first-generation students.

Since our inception in 2008, Moneythink has been a leader in financial capability for traditionally under-served youth. Along the way, we have mentored 32,000+ HS seniors and college students nationwide using our proprietary financial capability curricula — garnering accolades along the way, such as the White House Champions of Change Award.

Our outcomes show that we’re making an impact; and our work wouldn’t be possible without our partners. We have relied on a diverse set of college access nonprofits, public schools, and social-benefit collaborations to support our students’ journeys. For example, recent webinars with and insights from partners like Richmond PromiseScholarMatch, and Taco Bell’s Live Más Scholars reinforce and remind us that there’s still much for us to learn. And much more for all of us to do.

“It is clear this type of support is needed and wanted by our students…Highlighting key areas that may be overlooked daylights the complexities of financial aid, which is a necessary starting point to engage students…and support them in making an educated decision.

Richmond Promise

Moneythink emphasizes the costs [for students and families], as opposed to the estimated bill, and a healthy caution around Parent PLUS loans.

ScholarMatch
college student dabbing with diploma

What you can do now to support the Class of 2020 and transfer students

Because of our direct experience coaching students through financial decision making, along with paying attention to the landscape, we are here to offer relevant, timely information and resources to the field through capacity-building webinars, public content, and more to support #LessDebtMoreDegrees across the country.

Here are some answers to questions you may be asking.

Q: My student still doesn’t have all the information she needs to compare awards apples to apples. What can she do right now?

  • TuitionFit is one of the really great, accessible resources. They will help your student compare real financial aid offers and actual college prices by sorting through thousands of financial aid award offers shared by prior year users.

Q: My student seems like he’s eligible to get his deposit fees waived but it’s unclear how he can request a waiver at his college. What are his options?

  • You can use the NACAC Enrollment Deposit Fee Waiver if your student is experiencing significant financial hardship. A supplemental document outlines additional ways that you can advocate for him to get the support he needs.

Q: My student has the circumstances to appeal their financial aid package but we don’t know how to submit a strong appeal. Where can we go?

  • To request a change to your student’s college financial aid package, SwiftStudent can help you write a financial aid appeal letter for free with customizable templates.

Q: Should I support my students in deferring admission?

  • Money is going to be top of mind for students and their families when making the decision to go or not to go this fall. You will need to guide your students on a case-by-case basis depending on their college acceptances, financial aid award letters, and strength of the match. Only the college will have instructions on whether they accept deferment and under which circumstances so check with them first via online, by email, and by phone if needed.

Q: Where do I go for the latest information from my student’s college on their plans for the fall?

  • Colleges like Oregon State University are giving their admitted students the opportunity to tell the college what their plans are while making their responses “completely non-binding” through surveys.
  • The California State University (CSU) Chancellor’s Office gave students and staff some sense of what to expect this fall, announcing that “the planning framework for all 23 CSU campuses will be virtual instruction with very limited exceptions that meet rigorous and extensive safety and training requirements and are approved by the Chancellor’s Office as well as public health.”
  • There’s still room for differences across campuses and systems because of where colleges are located and how they’re affected by COVID-19. Students should check their emails regularly and sign into their college portals where they have access.
students raising hands in a classroom

How Moneythink supports YOU so you can support your students

Our college affordability tool, DecidED, scheduled for release this fall, brings transparency to the affordability options of students’ college choices. Especially as college costs, gift aid, and gap financial comparisons lack clarity, our tool has been developed to help you to better support strong enrollment decisions with the necessary financial data and relevant fit factors at hand — completely removing the guesswork out of college affordability. DecidED enables you to have even more productive and guided conversations with students about the tradeoffs of college options by:

  • Comparing true apples-to-apples affordability levels, quality, and fit across multiple college options;
  • Considering how graduation rate and future salaries outcomes might influence a students’ enrollment decision;
  • Enabling you to better support holistic and informed enrollment decisions grounded in an accurate and complete understanding of college costs;
  • Supporting your students in creating an action-oriented financial plan to responsibly pay for their first year of college, mitigating the chances of attrition or pausing out.

Do you like to use College Navigator for college profile information? DecidED’s college data comes from the same source. Want to get a head start on your financial aid planning curriculum and strategy for the Class of 2021?

It’s critical that we support the Class of 2020 through the transactional and social-emotional benchmarks of their college journey. This includes double-checking their financial aid, following up on appeals, active listening and affirmation, and coming up with backup plans together as needed.

As you think of ways to support your future college-aspiring students, let Moneythink help by giving you and your students the information they need. Together, let’s ensure that students are equipped and prepared to enter college without the unnecessary financial challenges that detract from focusing on personal growth and academic success.

Moving Forward in College and Career in the Time of COVID-19

student at a fork in the woods

If you are wondering what the new normal will look like, we’re all wondering the same thing. You had plans for the fall and you’re staying the course, you’ve changed your plans, or you’re in the throes of figuring out just how much those plans will change.

If you’re committed to starting college in the fall, expect others to join you! About 42% of students in a recent survey will not delay under any circumstances. Another survey from April shows that 17% of respondents are weighing a delayed enrollment to a four-year college until spring 2021. We’re also seeing that confidence to stay on track to college persists.

At Moneythink, we have your back. We want you to feel confident that, although the options may look different at least in the near future, there are still solid opportunities with the choice being yours to make. Here’s what you may be considering:

I’m still waiting to make a decision since other colleges have extended their deadlines. How do I make my choice?

student looking straight on the camera

Option #1. Accept for fall 2020 or spring 2021 and prepare for a potential virtual or hybrid experience.

Whatever the new normal looks like, colleges are getting ready for you! According to a recent report, 70% of colleges set up COVID-19 student necessity/emergency funds for their students as they prepare for the coming fall semester. While some colleges know their plans for the fall, others are still coordinating. “The majority of colleges and universities have not made a decision on the mode of instruction for fall,” and we expect this because the nature of COVID-19 is evolving across the country.

According to a recent report, 70% of colleges set up COVID-19 student necessity/emergency funds for their students as they prepare for the coming fall semester.

There is information out there so be sure to read it. Have any questions? Ask your high school counselors or local college access providers like Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, or local organizations like Making Waves, One Goal, Richmond Promise, and ScholarMatch.

If you’re thinking about taking a break for a semester or a year, “institutions are giving students the option to defer enrollment to later in the fall or to spring 2021.” Be sure to check with your intended college on their specific policy.

Option #2. Defer for a year — if your college allows it.

There are many reasons you may wish to defer, from staying home to help family, to taking the time to rethink your educational goals and plans. When you defer (also called taking a gap year), you plan to enroll in the next academic year (2021) in a college you were accepted to this year. Here are some things to know about deferring admission at your college:

  • The college needs to accept deferment.
  • Colleges maintain different policies to grant deferrals.
  • Some colleges require you to describe how you will use your gap year.

Contact your college to learn more about their process to be sure that deferral is a real option for you. Global Citizen Year has useful information on gap years. 

Option #3. Do not accept any colleges this year and reapply next year.

With this option, you’re not taking an official gap year. Instead, you are foregoing all of this year’s college acceptances and choosing to apply again for next year, fall 2021.

However, it gets harder to enroll in college the longer you wait, so be sure you have a plan. Choosing this option gives you a chance to reconsider and rebuild your list — and decide which colleges you will reapply to during your year off. To keep you organized, let us support you! Join our mailing list and we’ll tell you when our tool DecidED comes out. You can use DecidED to track your colleges, upload your financial aid award letters, and easily compare which colleges are affordable and the best fit for your needs!

Likewise, if you do choose to forego your college plans this year altogether, we highly suggest that you use your time wisely with work or volunteering, applying to scholarships, and focusing on activities that help you grow, enhance your skills, and extend your experiences and networks. Consider programs like City Year and Year Up who have rolling application deadlines and can give you hands-on training in real-world pathways, starting this fall.

Whichever of the three options you take now, keep in mind that there are trade offs that you’ll have to weigh. Remember that, in the end, going to college typically means increasing your earnings. College graduates, on average, will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate during the course of their working life, which is why going to college is a financially smart option. When you push college back a year, you are trading your post college earning potential for whatever you may earn during your year off. Whatever that tradeoff is to you, think critically, do your homework, and commit to your decision.

College graduates, on average, will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate during the course of their working life

To make smart financial decisions, consider affordability in your choice! Check out our Financial Aid Guide for steps on Using Awards to Calculate Cost of Attendance. For a visual tutorial, view a recording of our webinar below or download the full video here. Whatever your college decides and when they decide it, prepare to adapt to the situation, and commit to making the most of your college experience. You got this! 

Supporting Students Through COVID-19 Towards College and Career

college grad student watches ceremony

Things are changing in real time as colleges decide whether they will serve students on campus or virtually this coming fall. Likewise, students are considering a range of issues such as how far from home they can realistically go, if they need to work sooner than later, and if college expenses are even wise right now. As allies and college financial advisors, our intention is to ensure that all students have the tools and resources they need to make informed and affordable college decisions - ultimately helping them reach their college and career goals. As such, it’s important we know the circumstances students face if we are to strike the balance between giving expert guidance and affirmation as they make this important decision in their young lives.

According to the 2020 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States report, for every 100 low-income and first-generation dependent students entering college, only 26 will have earned a bachelor’s degree six years later compared with 69 of students who are not low-income and first-generation. While more low-income students are attending college, fewer students are graduating on time. 

Enrolling in a college with sustainable financial planning is critical for student success — both in college and beyond. Deciding what college to attend, however, is rife with financial risk. Colleges may offer a student dramatically different financial packages, but full cost information can be difficult to obtain, hard to compare, and challenging to interpret. 

Why is financial aid so difficult?

frustrated student covering face with book

In our Financial Need and Ownership Report, we reveal two driving factors of students’ financial vulnerability based on our interviews:

  1. Unmet Need – the amount that is left to be paid after financial aid is awarded (not including loans). 
  2. A Sense of Ownership – students who view themselves as responsible for their financial situation have an internal sense of ownership over their financial situation.

Unmet need is rarely clear. Award letters are difficult for students, families, and academic counselors to interpret. Because of this: 

  • The nation’s $1.6 trillion in student debt is fueled by opaque pricing in higher education.
  • Only 1-5% of 4-year colleges are considered affordable for first-generation and low-income freshmen, each year.
  • 70% of college dropouts leave school due to pressing financial concerns.
  • Pell grant recipients, most of whom have family incomes under $40,000, are 5x more likely to end up in default as their higher income peers.
  • First-generation students are more likely to end up in default than students whose parents had attended college. 
  • African-American students are more likely to default on their loans than students of other races and ethnicities. 
  • And, while 60% of white students borrow money, 87% of minorities borrow to attend college.

This issue is not a partisan one. According to Senator Lamar Alexander on NPR, “We consistently hear from students, parents, and administrators that students looking for federal financial aid to go to college need a much simpler system for the $30 billion in grants, roughly $100 billion in new loans, and the repayment plans for those loans.”

Unfortunately, it’s widely acknowledged that award letters are a major source of the inequity, confusion, and misinterpretation. Here are the Seven Financial Aid Award Letter “Don’t’s” that we’ve identified since 2008:

  1. Include confusing jargon and terminology.
  2. Omit the complete cost of attendance.
  3. Fail to differentiate types of aid.
  4. Mislead packaging of parent plus loans.
  5. Provide vague definitions of work study.
  6. Show inconsistent bottom line calculations.
  7. Do not provide clear next steps. 

In the article The Financial Aid Conundrum, we see that this issue affects all students, but disproportionately for low-income students of color who tend to have a lower sense of ownership. When students lack basic financial literacy skills, they make decisions that are based more on the influences of others than their own needs, and more fueled by opinions rather than critical information.

silhouette of a woman with her fist in the air

Moneythink is on the case

Since our inception in 2008, Moneythink has been a leader in financial capability for traditionally under-served youth. From 2008-2016, we mentored 30,000 HS students nationwide using our proprietary financial capability curricula — garnering accolades along the way, such as the White House Champions of Change Award.

Beginning in 2016, after years of work in financial literacy mentorship, we honed in on one of the most decisive moments in a young person’s life: enrolling and graduating from college with minimal financial burden. With an acute understanding of the obstacles, it was clear that a successful Moneythink program could support the development of youth-focused financial empowerment habits through virtual college financial advising, while also impacting long-term behavioral change and economic status. Between 2017-2019, we provided financial college coaching to over 2,500 students in Illinois and California.

Along the way, it became clear that we could  support the field as content experts focused on providing objective financial aid coaching. We convene advisors and organizations already doing great work and optimize their financial aid coaching with our tools, content, and training. 

In my interview with Next Gen Personal Finance Co-Founder Tim Ranzetta of the “Tim Talks To…” Podcast, I remind the field:

“It’s not because there isn’t a standard format. The Department of Education has suggested a financial aid award template to help clarify and systematize the information across different colleges. But it’s really up to colleges to decide how to format the information, the language they use. And we’re really seeing a lot of variance between college financial aid award letters.”

We know that students, families, and educators need to have tools at their fingertips to make sense of the information they can get, in whatever format it’s in, to make a truly informed choice that keeps student goals at the center.

This is where Moneythink’s new affordability tool, DecidED, comes in. 

Student with backpack and headphones smiling on a busy street

What Moneythink’s DecidED can do for YOU and Your Students

Our tool, DecidED, completely removes the guesswork out of college affordability for students and their families, as well as empowers counselors and advisors in the space. Moneythink’s tool, DecidED, scheduled for full release in the fall, 2020: .

  • Helps students make a holistic college enrollment decision informed by an accurate understanding of the cost of their college options.  
  • Provides focused, action-oriented, personalized content that helps students, families, and advisors make well informed enrollment decisions based on clear guidelines and methodology.
  • Helps schools, districts, and college access organizations extend the reach and impact of services by scaling financial aid literacy and action-enabling tools with technology and reporting.

DecidED can support educators and institutions during, throughout, and after the financial aid application process for students.

  • Educators and Institutions will be able to use DecidED for relevant, accurate financial aid guidance, advising, and tools so that they can navigate the “next normal” as education systems re-invent themselves. 
  • Administrators and Advocates can use DecidED for training, research, stories, and data that can inform reform as educators reconsider education priorities in light of lessons learned this year. We also share relevant, timely information and resources such as the NACAC Enrollment Deposit Fee Waiver and SwiftStudent for appeals.

DecidED helps students complete financial aid transactional steps and make a holistic college enrollment decision. 

  • Students use DecidED during the financial aid application process to:
    • Receive FAFSA/CA Dream Act submission reminders and instructions;
    • Make highly informed enrollment decisions grounded in an accurate and complete understanding of college costs; 
    • Compare true apples-to-apples affordability levels, quality, and fit across multiple college options; 
    • Consider how graduation rate and future salaries outcomes might influence their enrollment decision; 
    • Have productive conversations about the tradeoffs of college options with advisors and family; and 
    • Create a data-driven financial plan to responsibly pay for their college years. 
  • Students use DecidED once in college to:
    • Receive FAFSA/CA Dream Act renewal reminders and instructions for 2nd+ year of college; and
    • Continue to make highly informed decisions related to their financial plan to responsibly pay for their remaining college years.

Using our cutting edge-technology, DecidED clarifies the difference between gift aid (what students don’t have to pay back such as grants and scholarships) and self-help (what students have to pay back or earn such as loans and work study), and makes clear what the costs of attendance are. Only with all of these pieces can students and families fully understand 1) what college will cost, 2) how much outside aid they will get to go there, and 3) what is left for the family to cover.  By helping students make affordability-informed enrollment decisions, we expect that will increase the chance of students obtaining a bachelor’s degree, within their expected time to completion, with a sustainable amount of debt.

college advisor works with student in front of a blackboard on a laptop

Partner with Moneythink to scale success

Whether you are a high school counselor, a school administrator, a district director, an education advocate, or a college access program lead, we want to help you scale your success. 

Here are the different ways you can engage with Moneythink to enhance your services and extend your impact.

  • Sign up for a DecidED Demo this summer and learn how the tool can be used by you and your partners.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink Partnership Info Session this summer and find out how partnership with Moneythink can improve your student outcomes and increase your team’s capacity to advise and affirm.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink Financial Aid Training for the fall and let our content experts update your staff on financial aid policy, financial aid applications, and best practices in the field.
  • Sign up for the DecidED Pilot for the fall so that we can offer your organization the collaboration, data, tools, and resources to help your students succeed.
  • Sign up for a Moneythink API Info Session if you’d like to learn more about how our data, reporting, and API resources can compliment and improve your existing tools and reports.

DecidED comes at a critical time when K-12 systems are still waiting to understand how the coronavirus will impact school plans for the 2020-2021 Academic Year. Moneythink can support education leaders in designing a new normal for graduating high school seniors, incoming college freshmen and incoming college transfers that learns from old lessons and prevents more students from making ill-informed and unaffordable college decisions. 

Together, we can help our students not just survive, but thrive. Not just complete, but succeed. Our students can achieve #lessdebtmoredegrees, and at the same time, design a pathway towards an economically sustainable future for themselves, and their families.

About the authors:

Joshua Lachs serves as the CEO at Moneythink, a national ed-tech nonprofit that aims to bring college cost transparency to scale while helping all students have the opportunity to earn a college degree with little to no debt. 

Meredith Curry is a Senior Advisor at Moneythink. Meredith has served as the Founding Director of Operations at California College Guidance Initiative and the Executive Director at South Central Scholars.

As former first-gen college students, Josh and Meredith each know firsthand that the financial side of college can be daunting and are both inspired to ensure that students have access to the opportunities they deserve.