A Conversation with Justin Dent on Financial Literacy in the New Economy

Justin Dent is the cofounder and executive director of GenFKD, a financial literacy reform organization dedicated to spreading awareness of practical economic skills and student debt across chapters in twenty-eight universities. Dent graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in international/global studies and finance. Dent spoke with The Gate’s Gabriel Goodspeed to explain the founding and purpose of GenFKD in the contexts of high college tuition and our nation’s changing economy.

The Gate: What was your goal in co-founding GenFKD, and how did you come up with the idea?

Justin Dent: So I started GenFKD when I was a sophomore in university, actually. At the time, a lot of what I was hearing was just a need for some kind of financial education because so many students and so many of my friends had taken on a lot of debt to go to school, and were … graduating and not finding employment all that easily and struggling with debtso when I heard all of this I wanted to do something about it. And so I said, “Let’s start a financial education program or a financial literacy initiative.” My co-founder and I were very lucky to find support in Bernie Marcus, who is the co-founder of Home Depot. I met him, and I was complaining about what was going on at school [with regard to students’ lack of financial literacy]. And he said, “I think that’s a vital and necessary resource for students, so I will help you in doing that and will support your endeavor.” So he came on knowing what we were doing, and our whole goal from day one was to give students an education in financial literacy so they could support themselves after graduation. Now we are focused on both financial literacy and education, but as we have grown, we have noticed there is a demand for entrepreneurship and also for career-related skills. When someone is a first-year undergraduate, the conversation [at college] isn’t always around what your job is going to be after you graduate or what kind of career you are going into. For a lot of people, that is a necessary conversation to have because if you are taking on upwards of $50,000 of debt a year, you should have a conversation about your plans. So we see ourselves as an organization that has filled in some of the “real world” gaps in traditional education.

Gate: What do you think is the primary cause for the rise in college tuition, and what are some of the ways you are helping students deal with their debt?

Dent: Anybody who says they have the answer to that question is 100 percent lying [laughs]. The higher education market from an economics perspective is an extremely convoluted market and one of the main reasons that tuition is going up. And the question becomes, “Why is tuition going up?” There are a whole host of factors in that, but we largely see it this way: universities have often been competing to get the best students. In order to do that, they have to get the best services and resources at their disposal. So they have invested a lot into making a kind of gold tie on educationbetter buildings and facilities and all of that. And that’s important. But at the same time they have not put that necessarily into improving the actual classroom experience and education that students are walking away with. So you have been able to have tuition rise, without students [having the opportunity] of saying they want a change in the quality of education. And it is a great thing that universities and colleges are more diverse than ever. So you have more socioeconomic diversity than you have ever had in higher education. That means that you have more people who come from poorer backgrounds and who need financial aid and programs and so on. But unfortunately, universities can’t always fill the gap. People have to take on debt in order to finance education. There have been countless studies that have shown that higher education is a worthwhile investment and that there is a return on the investment. But at the same time, you have very high rates of student loan default because people don’t realize the sticker price until after they graduate.

At GenFKD, we aim to increase awareness about students’ finances because the numbers exist for each individual student in terms of how much debt they have and what their interest rates will be, but there is not an awareness of that in the immediate future. There are a lot of first- and second-year students, even third- and fourth-years, who are unaware of what their total student debt is going to be once they graduate, and what kind of interest they are going to be paying and what their return on payments is. So we run workshops across twenty-eight universities to that point. We also offer a workshop on advising that [helps students find resources]. There are so many resources out there that it is almost impossible to find the right ones. There are five hundred thousand pages on Google just on how to deal with student debt; how I am going to find the right one for me? So we try to close that gap a little.

Gate: To clarify, GenFKD’s objective is to help millennials to familiarize themselves  with their finances from an early stage?

Dent: Yes, precisely. We bring awareness to issues like student debt and also to what the employment process looks like. So we run focus groups across universities and students will tell us, “We just want to know some very basic things.” They want to know, “How am I going to deal with my debt? How am I going to afford a house because I do want to have a house one day? How do I go into a salary negotiation knowing what impact taxes are going to have on my salary? How do I know when to start saving or how much to start saving?” So these are all very basic questions that you would think are in our education process or that everyone would just get earlier on in life, but we don’t. So at GenFKD, we see ourselves as bringing awareness to these questions and as being the people on campus that you can talk to about those issues. We are still very much a student organization in that each of our chapters at the colleges we work with are all led by fellows, who are students that we train and that we hire to be sort of principal advisors. The fellows are the ones on each campus that will listen to the questions that people are asking. We give them the resources to answer those questions and help them facilitate those kinds of conversations.

Gate: GenFKD’s mission statement says that it aims to equip millennials with the skills and education necessary to create and lead the “new economy.” In your opinion, what are the differences between this “new economy” and “older” economies?

Dent: You look at where unemployment is going and if you talk to any of the leading employers or sort of major companies today, a lot of them cite difficulty finding the talent that they need, finding the skills that they need. What’s interesting is that we often make a mistakeand by we I don’t just mean GenFKD, but mean we as a society nowmake a mistake of thinking that it is all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills that students lack. That’s true, there is certainly a STEM skills gap. But most employers now are looking for what’s called “hybrid skills.” So that means that students need the soft skills of communication, leadership, public speaking, and just general perception as well as technological skills, hard skills, such as data analysis and some coding. As smaller tasks are becoming more technical, we happen to have people who can understand these skills, but at the same time what a lot of students are missing are the soft skills like leadership and communication, so you see the rise of things like General Assembly. Those skills, soft skills, are really important, but it is really how do you blend the hard skills with the softer elements that a lot of people end up getting through participation in, for example, student organizations.

Somebody who used to be a former executive at SANS (a technology institute) once told me, “I always hire people based on their involvement in student organizations because that reveals their leadership experience. And that was going to be a better judge for me about the success they had than any of the classes they took.” So I think we are entering an economy where it is necessary to have tech skills and soft skills for high-paying jobs in a high-work field. And demands are higher, and I think that if you look at the way that our education system has responded to that, you don’t really see enough of an emphasis on the soft skills or on the hard skills. So you have a lot of students who graduate without having even taken an introductory class in anything technical like computer science or data science. And that’s a problem. Not everyone needs to be a coder or data scientist, but those fields have small subsets of skills that everyone can have and that are necessary to every job. So as things get more competitive, we see the merging of these two fields as really the best way to develop students into career-ready individuals.

Gate: Is GenFKD recognized by the universities as a student-run club?

Dent: That’s critical to who we are. The vast majority of our chapters are recognized as chartered student clubs. There are some chapters [that are up for review]. But they are all charted as student groups. We were a student group first; we will always be a student group. I think one the things that really sets us apart is that what we try to do is emphasize this idea of peer-to-peer learning. So that’s something we really try to work on. It puts the student leaders in a better position when it comes to their own career development because we give them a huge set of skills they can put into their careers.

Gate: So aside from GenFKD, what other college resources would you recommend for students?

Dent:  I have realizedthis is true of the internet and true of college campusesthat there is a huge number of resources. In my opinion, financial aid departments have always been the most perceptive and kind people on campus because they work with students on a day-to-day basis and try to give them the resources to stay in school. For anyone who is having difficulty figuring out how to afford school or stay in school or even finance their education afterwards, talk to them. Most times they will be able to pair you with a counselor who will walk you through exactly what your own situation is. In a way, that is better than what GenFKD can do, because they have access to all of your documentation and will work with you in a very private and confidential manner. When it comes to careers and career readiness in general, I think that career centers can be useful to have an extra set of eyes on your resume. But to be quite frank, most of what we hear is that career services tend to not be the most useful when it comes to actually helping you find a job or internship. Something that I did is if there is a company or somebody that you think you are interested in, just email somebody there. You will very often get a very positive response, especially if you talk with someone who is in the HR recruiting department. They will respond because their job is to have top-tier talent, and they will help guide you to make sure that you are that.

Online, NerdWallet is great, especially when looking up credit cards. Nerdwallet is a for-profit company, but what they do is specialize in providing reviews on financial services. They will help you through the nitty gritty if you are thinking of opening a bank account or savings account. There are also organizations such as Common Bond. Essentially what they will do is help you refinance your student debt. There’s another group called the Student Debt Crisis which also provides advisors to help you pay back your student debt. They have a student debt crisis hotline that you can call if you are facing immediate problems with student debt. There are a lot of resourcesit is just a question of finding them and making them easy to interpret and access.

Gate: To conclude, what impacts do you think you have made through your work, and how do you hope to continue those efforts?

Dent: We want to look back in, let’s say, four years from now, and say that a student like you who was part of our programming and was part of what we did is in a better financial position than someone else who wasn’t. That means that they are paying back their student debt, they are hopefully making more money, they got to a job faster. We want to see a more equipped generation of people who are both career-ready and financially prepared. I think for me, especially coming from a minority background, it is really imperative to get those kinds of resources to students that traditionally don’t have them. And we want to make universities more accountable. We want universities to report how many of their students are employed, what are they making, what is their student debt payment like, where are they in their jobs six, ten, fifteen years from now. Personally I think it is the job of institutions of higher education to start preparing people for careers and start preparing people to operate in the real world. There are going to be a lot of people who criticize that. They say, what about education for just education’s sake? That’s all good and well. We see our programming as providing a way for traditional universities to teach the education that they have been teaching since the nineteenth century, but also providing a set of skills that can push people further economically in the twenty-first century. We just want people to be their best selves, as cheesy as it sounds, in really real and quantifiable terms. That’s what my team and I spend our days trying to accomplish.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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