Laura McGee is the Financial Education Consultant for the State Auditor’s Office and an enrolled Blackfeet member. In her works, she facilitates financial education for Native students by connecting schools with programs which fit their needs, as well as leading classes and presentations. She assists schools on a case-by-case basis, providing them with the resources and instruction they request to address their particular needs.
One of the programs she worked on this summer was providing education on financial management—including topics such as money, credit, savings, and financial aid—to Native students participating in the BRIDGES program.
BRIDGES is a partnership between Montana State University and tribal colleges that helps students make a smooth transition from the two-year tribal colleges to MSU so they can complete bachelors degrees. One reason students in the program need help learning to manage finances is that they often have difficulty managing financial aid.
“Students need to budget these funds for the entire semester,” says McGee. “As one program director explained [to me], he has seen many students spend most of these funds as soon as they receive them, take out unnecessary loans, lose financial aid due to academic reasons, etc.”
McGee also says that many students don’t have savings accounts, a problem especially prevalent in Native communities. There are many possible explanations for this.
One explanation McGee has heard is based on how children perceive their parents’ experiences with banks. Whereas many people associate banks with positive events experienced by their parents, Natives are more likely to associate banks with negative events experienced by their parents, such as denied loan applications or overdraft fees. Another explanation McGee has heard is that Natives avoid banks because there are so few Natives working in the banking industry, and—because they are not familiar with banking practices—may feel that the questions and disclosures associated with banking are discriminatory.
As a result of being unbanked, many Native students cash tribal stipend checks through check-cashing services or predatory lenders, losing much-needed funds to high fees.
One approach McGee is using to increase savings account rates is to take students on private bank tours. “Students can see a banker, see that they are friendly,” says McGee. “They can also ask how to open a bank account,” and learn that the questions asked when opening an account are routine. It shows that “this isn’t because you’re Native, we ask [these questions] of everybody.”
For more information on the Montana State Auditor’s Office, including financial education and information, please visit http://www.sao.mt.gov/.
For more information on the BRIDGES program, please visit http://www.montana.edu/wwwai/bridges/.