Innovative financial center helps students stay on track, plan for future success

Eight times out of 10, Justin Barrieault believes that if a student facing financial hardship comes to the Financial Wellness Center, he and the coaching staff can keep them in school and get them back on track.

 “I always tell students that I'm here to present you with all your options around funding school and I'm here to make this process more digestible and less scary,” Barrieault says. The same is true for any question about finances and budgeting.

Portland State University’s Financial Wellness Center (FWC) is the first of its kind — designed to provide a more holistic approach to finances for college and beyond. 

The center launched in 2016 after four years of advocacy by Amanda Bierbrauer, director of Student Financial Services and the FWC, who believes students could be better served if financial issues were addressed proactively rather than after they dropped out of school due to hardship. 

“I want students to feel like the center is a resource where they can come and ask any question,” Bierbrauer says.

Shawna Chambers, assistant director of the FWC, says most conversations between students and collection agents aren’t focused on getting students back in school or setting them up for future financial success.

“We really shifted our focus from hard collections and denying students’ registration to a new focus, ‘Let me help you and give you the tools,’” Chambers says. “Launching the Financial Wellness Center really changed the entire intent of the work our collection team does. We still do all charges for the university, but it’s not the priority.”

A holistic approach to finances

Bierbrauer views the purpose of the FWC as two-fold.

“One is to help students who are having issues or a hard time making payments find resources and figure out how they’re going to get through college,” Bierbrauer says. “The other piece of it is giving students a place and somebody to talk to just about general finances.”

She added the FWC should feel like a resource where the campus community can come and ask any question, whether the subject is paying a bill, budgeting or financing a new car.

“There’s no judgment,” Bierbrauer says. “We’ll help them get the skills to do that on their own.”

As one of eight financial coaches at the FWC, Barrieault spends much of his time meeting with students who have never budgeted before. He helps them budget for their daily life over a series of check-ins to help get them on track.

And if they get off track and miss a tuition payment, for example, Barrieault and the other coaches have options to help get students back to a good financial place.

 “We have a carrot to dangle,” Chambers says. “We can reverse late fees. Whenever we go and talk to students, we always say you get a one-time fee removal, no questions asked. We don't care. People make mistakes. You're here to learn, hopefully, and also learn about budgeting.”

The FWC also hosts larger educational events multiple times a year in an effort to let students know more about the resources and get an introduction to financial literacy.

“I think financial education is something that every single student on campus deserves and should have access to,” Chambers says. “We really want to help the students who are already at their wit's end or before.”

The financial disruptors that result from missed payments range from collection agencies taking over the account and resulting credit score impacts to the garnishment of tax refunds.

“Those are major life disruptors for some people, and it can make or break their careers, their livelihood and their families,” Chambers adds. “I don't want PSU to be a reason for them to not be happy in life.”

Story by Katy Swordfisk
Photos by Bruce Bradbury