How accounting students can help communities improve financial literacy

Accounting students learn valuable skills while giving back.
By Samiha Khanna

Whether it’s understanding personal income taxes or choosing the right investments, many Americans lack the knowledge and confidence to make informed decisions about their financial futures.

Many accounting and finance students across the U.S. are taking action to alleviate this problem. They are working to improve the financial literacy of teens, parents, and business owners in their communities while gaining real-world experience counseling clients with all types of needs and levels of knowledge. Here are some ways students have used their financial knowledge to teach others in their communities, along with a few tips for faculty interested in having their own students give financial literacy presentations:

Finance for the Community, Northeastern University

At Northeastern University, about 50 undergraduate students belong to Finance For the Community, an extracurricular club that gives presentations to teens in Boston public high schools, said club president Daniel Omicinski, a senior majoring in business administration.

The presentations may take the form of one of three modules. Through the sessions, high schoolers learn about the difference between wants and needs, income taxes, budgeting and expense tracking, understanding credit, and methods for choosing and financing a postsecondary education.

“Some students bring our lessons back to their parents or other family members and help them start making a budget or spending less, and these types of stories really allow us to see our impact,” Omicinski said.

Northeastern students teach the sessions in teams and are currently working in seven high schools, he said. Students develop the curriculum and train new members.

High school students often find finance topics more accessible when they’re taught by college students, said Charlie Bame-Aldred, Ph.D., executive professor of accounting and the faculty adviser for the club. “When a person in high school interacts with a college student, there is a belief transfer,” he noted. “The college student can make the information relatable to a person that could be in the same position in one to three years. The college students believe the high school students can understand these simple ideas, and as a result the high school students also begin to believe they can understand personal finance.”

Presentations on tax basics, San José State University

At San José State University, pairs of graduate tax students (MST) present to community groups on topics such as tax basics and the tax considerations of starting a business. Some have worked with a university-sponsored public service organization to offer a workshop for entrepreneurs on setting up a business. Others have run a workshop for parents of K–12 students on income taxes, covering basics such as tax terminology, what’s included in a return, higher education tax incentives, and where families can go if they need help preparing their taxes.

“We may take this for granted, but a lot of people don’t have any knowledge about their taxes and may not even know where to go if they need help.” said MST program director Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA. The presentations “are intended to help the audience be more tax-aware when they talk to a preparer, do their own return, or think about starting a business,” she said.

The students do a “dry run” of their presentations in front of Nellen and other students first, just to be sure they feel confident with the material, and then they’re on their way.

“The students gain increased confidence in presentation skills and tax knowledge,” Nellen said. “The presentations are a reminder that they need to be able to explain complex tax rules in understandable ways. This helps them not only for formal presentations, but also in explaining something to a client."

Financial basics for high schoolers, Manhattan College

Community service is a cornerstone of the educational model at Manhattan College, where members of the Beta Alpha Psi international honor society have worked with high schoolers from Yonkers to teach them about majoring in business. The BAP members work to improve the teenagers’ basic financial knowledge, instructing them on topics such as how to write checks and understanding a credit score — basic things even many college students don’t know, said Aileen Farrelly, CPA, assistant dean in the Manhattan College School of Business.

“One of our pillars at Manhattan College is social action. Being in the Bronx, we do a lot of outreach in the community and there’s a lot of opportunity here to help,” Farrelly said. “Learning these skills in college is fantastic, but being able to take it to the next level and help others with it is something that we value tremendously.”

Advice for helping students reach out to their communities

Start at your own school. Students can present to groups on campus before reaching out to the broader community. At San José State, students get lots of practice on campus, presenting to Nellen and peers across other academic disciplines.

Nellen said she usually informs other professors about a month before the start of a new semester that MST students are available to make presentations in their classrooms, giving those professors time to factor the opportunity into their course syllabus. A college’s financial aid office might also offer ripe opportunities for teaching financial literacy, Nellen said.

Emphasize skill-building. Presentations can be an excellent way for students to build soft skills such as public speaking and adapting information to different audiences.

Fei Chen, a CPA candidate and a recent graduate of the MST program at San José State who now works for EY, said she’s been able to apply what she learned from giving presentations to her job.

“I often help out with recruiting at work, which requires me to speak to college students either one-on-one or in a group setting,” noted Chen. “My experience with the presentations helped me to learn how to shift my focus from how I feel (i.e., my nervousness) to what my purpose is (i.e., to deliver tax information, to share my experience, etc.).”

Try ready-made resources. The AICPA’s National Financial Literacy Commission has created a number of resources college students can use in educating others. AICPA members can also access turnkey communication kits online, or partner with their state CPA society to organize workshops in their communities.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor on the magazines and newsletters team at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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