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Sparing students from mountains of college debt

Anthony Rodriguez
May 21, 2018

Advocate professor examines issues, discovers solutions to help college students improve financial literacy

Every day, we make decisions about how to use our time and money. Are they the best we can make? Are they part of a financial plan? How do you even create a plan?

Associate Professor Catherine P. Montalto has built her academic career around studying how people make these decisions. Her focus on understanding financial wellness among college students has propelled Ohio State into the national spotlight.

Her 2017 study with the university’s Center for the Study of Student Life tackled collegiate financial wellness across the spectrum of college and university students at two- and four-year public and private institutions.

Her peers call Montalto a pioneer in collegiate financial wellness.

“She’s one of the first researchers to consider financial wellness among students in a holistic sense,” said Erica Phillips, interim assistant director at the Ohio State Center for the Study of Student Life. “Her committed interest in connecting research to practice has led to her significant contributions to the Scarlet and Gray Financial program.”

As associate professor of consumer sciences, and director of First Year Experience, Montalto has advocated for college students most of her career. Her deep-seated care for students is what drives her efforts to help them.

Read how two EHE students learned to get their wallets right

It’s also what propels her graduate students to continue to work with Montalto long after they have earned their degrees and started mentoring their own students.

“She’s been immensely helpful. I’m really grateful,” said Jodi Letkiewicz, assistant professor at York University (’12, PhD). “She’s a fantastic mentor – not only the help with research but what it means to be faculty at a research university. She participates as an equal. That’s really fantastic.”

Montalto presents the results of the 2017 Study on Collegiate Financial Wellness.

Family decisions shape financial literacy

Growing up on a small Ohio farm, the financial decisions Montalto’s family made set the course for her career at Ohio State.

The farm was too small to support her family of six, so her father also worked for a chemical and plastics manufacturer. Montalto’s mother made the conscious decision to stay home with her children.

This made budgeting an important family practice. They harvested and preserved fruits and vegetables, were avid board and game players and received gently worn clothing from older cousins. These decisions the family made about time and money, especially her mother’s decisions, shaped Montalto’s academic interests.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State, where she developed her focus on families and how they use their resources. This, combined with her family upbringing and interest in how women make career decisions, convinced Montalto to earn a doctorate at Cornell University.

“My mother could have made the decision to go to work and be a second income for the family,” she said. “For her, being home with the children full time was important.

“These decisions families make have implications for what children know. Their generational financial literacy, their views of money and their attitudes are shaped by what they experience growing up.”

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Gauging financial wellness in the 21st century

Montalto’s dedication to understanding financial security for families and students has taken different turns during her 25 years at Ohio State.

She recognized in the late ’90s and early 2000s that students were getting themselves in trouble with such easy access to credit without understanding its implications.

Students sometimes filled out three credit card applications for a T-shirt or two-liter of soda. Student organizations were often enticed to sponsor credit card solicitations because of the financial incentives credit card companies would offer them.

Federal legislation eventually prohibited credit card companies from promoting on campus. Montalto and Ohio State colleagues then helped make financial education a priority.

Programs and coaching were introduced in 2001 that laid the groundwork for the financial education available to Ohio State students today.

Since 2005, they have studied the capacity of college students’ financial literacy, their confidence and stress with money, as well as how they pay for college. The research started by examining financial literacy at Ohio State and has since expanded to include students from 90 college and university campuses across the United States.

The results of the surveys have allowed Ohio State and other universities to create and refine financial literacy programming that helps students better understand credit cards, budgeting and how to set financial goals.

Q&A: Montalto shares insights into student behavior and finances

“Montalto’s work on collegiate financial wellness is nothing short of pioneering,” said Jonathan Fox, professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University. “The Study on Collegiate Financial Wellness is now recognized as the primary source of information and research on financial aid and college funding decisions.”

The next collegiate financial wellness survey is in the works for 2020, Montalto said. In the meantime, she is exploring how to better understand how students handle different financial situations, their aversion to debt, and effective strategies to nudge students to make good financial decisions.

“There is a lot for us to study to help develop good financial skills in young people on our college campuses,” she said.

Bonus: The face behind the most famous sound on The Oval

In addition to all Montalto does for Ohio State, she also is a long-time member of Ohio Staters, Inc., the longest running service organization at the university. As a member, she plays the bells and chimes in Orton Hall. In 2015, she gave a behind-the-scenes look of what she does for the 100th anniversary of the Orton Chimes.


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