Illinois State junior Liz Bresnahan doesn’t usually save her old assignments from general education classes she took a few semesters ago. But this class was different.

Personal Financial Literacy for the College Student (BTE 141) shows students like Bresnahan how to create a financial plan, set a budget, buy a car, understand their credit score, and much more. It was so useful that Bresnahan still pulls out her old homework, like her savings spreadsheet, to help in real life.

“After taking the class, I felt like I had more competence and financial know-how,” said Bresnahan, a special education major. “I could file my taxes, or take out a loan, and feel confident in doing so responsibly.”

The creation of this class, as well as a new study exploring the overall financial literacy of Illinois State students, stems from a unique and growing partnership between the College of Business and COUNTRY Financial. Together, Illinois State and COUNTRY Financial are discovering new ways to teach financial literacy to students in K-12 schools and when they arrive at college—a mutual interest with a huge upside.

Student talks in Financial literacy class

An Illinois State student presents during his Personal Financial Literacy for the College Student class.

Financial literacy equips children through young adults with skills important for their future success, which is an area of critical importance to COUNTRY Financial, said Steve Denault, executive vice president of enterprise business services at the Bloomington-based insurer.

“Illinois State University provides us with tremendous value in this area, from student knowledge to teacher preparation, allowing us to improve educational resources, provide educator support and continuously seek ways to improve the financial literacy of our communities,” Denault said.

Most recently, faculty from the Department of Finance, Insurance, and Law surveyed ISU freshmen and seniors about their financial literacy. They asked how often students look at their bank account balances, whether they knew the differences between a debit and credit card, and if it was good to diversify if you invest in stocks.

The faculty plan to repeat the survey this fall with more students. But their analysis has produced some interesting findings already. Notably, those students with educational loans were not apparently more financially literate than their pay-as-you-go peers—a potential red flag. The research is led by chairperson Gary Koppenhaver and faculty members Edgar Norton, Christopher Tamm, and Abhishek Varma. The study is funded by COUNTRY Financial.

“COUNTRY Financial gives its time, as well as its money.”

“Going forward, with as many problems as we’ve had with consistent state support of higher education, we have to be able to control our own destiny,” Koppenhaver said. “COUNTRY Financial gives its time, as well as its money. They’re a big backer of what we do in the department and the college.”

Creating the course

COUNTRY Financial’s support also helped spark the Personal Financial Literacy course offered in the College of Business.

Assistant Professor Tamra Davis from the college’s business teacher education (BTE) program created the curriculum for the class in 2012-2013, answering a call from the Provost’s Office for a general education math class focused on financial literacy. At the time, Davis was the college’s COUNTRY Financial Faculty Scholar, which supported her research into how tablet computers helped prepare future business teachers to teach K-12 financial literacy.

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Many of Davis’ Personal Financial Literacy students don’t even realize they have a credit score, because of their student loans.

“Every day is a lightbulb moment with the students,” Davis said.

One of the underlying problems is that personal finance is not emphasized enough at the junior high and high school levels, said Rich Gordon, an instructional assistant professor who teaches BTE 141.

“Most millennials don’t understand what it means to be a capitalist,” Gordon said. “No one comes up and holds your hand and says, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do, now go do it.’ In capitalism, if you do not know you lose—money!”

The BTE 141 course tries to fix that. On the first day, Gordon stumps his students by asking how much money they’d have if they saved $100 a month for 35 years, with a 15 percent rate of return. Of the 1,200 students he’s asked, no one has ever guessed the right answer—well over $1 million.

In his course, Gordon’s students research mini-topics, like the cost of owning a pet or raising children.

“The overwhelming thing I hear back from students is that they should’ve taken this class a long time ago,” Gordon added.

Students in financial literacy class

COUNTRY Financial’s support helped spark the Personal Financial Literacy course offered in the College of Business.

Next steps

For Davis, COUNTRY Financial’s support has already improved the way she prepares future K-12 business teachers and helped Illinois State students expand their own financial literacy.

Davis plans to continue her research into the self-efficacy of current educators, ISU education students, and ISU teacher educators to teach financial literacy. She also plans to share new materials from COUNTRY Financial’s own K-12 school financial literacy curriculum with her BTE students.

The Department of Finance, Insurance, and Law also hopes to launch an Institute for Financial Planning and Analysis, which would support the growing financial planning minor and become a focal point for financial literacy on campus and in the Bloomington-Normal community, said Koppenhaver.

“COUNTRY Financial’s support has expanded our ability to teach more creatively and more dynamically with our students,” Davis said. “Without their support, that piece would be missing.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at