While spending money is easier than ever – one tap on a mobile device and a person can buy almost anything –the financial literacy of how to spend and save money often remains elusive, including among teenagers. According to Schwab’s 2020 Financial Literacy survey, 65% of Americans look primarily to schools to provide financial education, despite the fact that fewer than half of U.S. states include any kind of personal finance course as a requirement for high school graduation.

For Credit Union of Texas (CUTX), an organization founded by 13 teachers nearly 100 years ago, recognizing the value of fostering financial literacy spurred action that is having a lasting impact for students in North Texas. Earlier this year, CUTX partnered with North Texas’ Allen High School to develop a full-service, student-run SMART Branch as a banking center and financial literacy center located inside the school, the first-of-its-kind for a financial institution in Dallas-Fort Worth. Allen High School, which enrolls more than 5,000 students annually, is located in Collin County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. More than 200 junior and senior students applied to work at the SMART Branch, named for its focus on Servant leadership, Motivation, Active learning, Reasoning and Technology.

CUTX developed the SMART Branch with the goal of providing students with the financial resources and education that will empower them to make sound financial decisions in the future.

“Allen ISD strives to equip its students with skills that will lead to their success in college and in life thereafter,” said Courtney Coss, chief retail officer at Credit Union of Texas. “Financial literacy is a top priority for our team, and we’ve had a longstanding partnership with Allen ISD. When we suggested the concept of a student-run branch for hands-on learning, they were all for it, so this has been a perfect partnership and, most importantly, a win for the students.”

Today, the branch employs 28 students who work multiple two-hour shifts throughout the school week and serve in one of four roles – branch manager, teller, personal banker and marketer. During their shifts, student employees assist fellow students, teachers and school staff in opening new accounts, completing teller transactions, performing audits and marketing the branch and its services throughout the Allen community. To date, more than 120 students, teachers and faculty have opened accounts at the SMART Branch.

Student employees were selected based on a variety of criteria – their application submissions, interviews with CUTX employees, their interest in or study of business or marketing, academic records, dedication to volunteerism, teacher recommendations and public speaking skills. All students hired to work at the CUTX SMART Branch receive a $1,000 scholarship earmarked for future education-related needs each year they are employed with the branch.

Following acceptance into the program, each student employee completed three weeks of training that involved collaboration with fellow employees and instruction from CUTX team members on key banking skills, including opening bank accounts, depositing checks and performing branch audits.

While all student employees are cross-trained on the banking center’s various job roles so that they can step in if needed, each student was hired for a specific position. Two students designated as branch managers shadow the full-time CUTX branch manager who oversees all bank operations at the location. As part of their leadership roles, the student branch managers oversee all fellow student employees, help pull daily and weekly branch reports and ensure operations at the branch run smoothly. As in all CUTX branches, student tellers at the SMART Branch are responsible for helping customers open accounts, conduct transactions and even provide information on offerings like auto loans.

Student employees in marketing roles at the SMART Branch are responsible for organizing and preparing for community outreach and events, including school pep rallies, game nights, college fairs and other school- and community-related events. One example is Allen High School’s annual Fall Festival, which takes place at the school’s STEAM Center (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) campus. At the event, which is open to the greater Allen community, students discuss the SMART Branch with parents and other attendees, including Allen ISD School Board Trustees. The SMART Branch marketing team is also planning a December holiday movie night for the high school.

Community engagement ideas developed by the marketing team are reviewed by the CUTX SMART Branch manager and chief marketing officer prior to implementation. Often, the marketers develop new merchandising ideas designed specifically to increase engagement among high school students. Most recently, the student marketing team suggested branded wristbands and Allen High School-branded sweatshirts as a way to encourage students’ involvement with CUTX.

All students who work at the SMART Branch share the responsibility of teaching financial literacy to other students. The financial literacy center, located within the school’s College and Career Center adjacent to the branch, is available to all Allen High School students. Under the instruction of the Business & Finance practicum course teacher, who helps oversee the financial literacy center with CUTX, student employees first learn all of the course material each week before presenting the various modules to fellow classmates. Topics covered throughout the year include money management, loans, credit, investing and more.  CUTX partnered with the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) to develop a modified version of its High School Financial Planning Program (HSFPP) for use at Allen High School. To encourage students to complete financial literacy modules offered by the school, students can earn Eagle Engagement points, Allen ISD’s reward system. These points can be accumulated and cashed in for school rewards, like exam exemptions and graduation cords.

“Our priority is providing our students a wide array of learning opportunities to enhance their academic experience and prepare them for the future,” said Allen High School Principal Matt Russell. “Partnering with Credit Union of Texas to develop the SMART Branch and its financial literacy center not only creates a hands-on learning experience for some of our students, but it also gives each of our students, faculty and staff convenient access to vital financial education tools.”

Student employee feedback about the SMART Branch has been overwhelmingly positive, with one employee noting that he went from having no financial literacy skills to now researching an individual retirement account (IRA) and investments. Another student employee said that working at the SMART Branch changed his career path and he will now focus on a finance-related major once he enters college. Other students have expressed newfound confidence as a result of the financial literacy presentations and customer interactions as well the collaboration and teamwork experienced while working at the branch.

All sophomore and junior grade-level employees are eligible for re-hiring, although they must maintain their qualifications and interview again. CUTX will consider all Allen High School student employees as potential future hires for permanent careers at the credit union.

The Allen High School SMART Branch has equipped its students with financial literacy and money management skills, placing them strides ahead of many high school students in the nation. With the success of the Allen High School SMART Branch, Credit Union of Texas has received numerous requests from other school districts for similar opportunities, and the next SMART Branch is slated to open in January 2022 at Little Elm High School, also located in North Texas. CUTX plans to continue developing this financial education trend throughout North Texas.

About the Author:
Courtney Coss is the chief retail officer for Credit Union of Texas, where she directs and oversees 16 branch locations, including its full-service, in-school SMART Branches, as well as the Member Service Call Center, interactive teller machines (ITMs), and facilities departments. Her 22-year career with the CUTX has been focused on delivering a high-quality experience for members and developing a talented team of leaders to ensure all CUTX team members carry out the company’s core values, which include volunteerism, community sponsorships, and financial education.  For almost 100 years, Credit Union of Texas, which has grown to over $1.7 billion in assets, has provided financial services to members in communities throughout North Texas.