Ever since “promoting thrift” was codified as a core value in the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934, credit unions have been interested in ways to help members manage their money well. That task can extend from offering good and basic financial products all the way to offering complex financial advice and in-depth financial education.
Whereas financial education used to be easy to picture (think of a classroom, a teacher, maybe a workbook, and definitely some pamphlets), tools for reaching students have rapidly expanded. In an environment that increasingly relies on individuals to make their own financial plans, how effective is online learning?
What is the research about?
In 2009 and 2010 researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in cooperation with the Wisconsin Credit Union League, administered a series of surveys followed by financial education modules to hundreds of employees at Wisconsin credit unions. The project is part of a larger experiment to see just how effective online education can be in improving financial knowledge and changing financial behavior. But not all financial education is created equal.
The researchers wanted to know whether a nine-part online education series—covering topics such as “Basics of Investing,” “Investing in Mutual Funds,” and “Working with Financial Advisors”—would lead to both sustained knowledge and changed behavior. Fifty-four percent of respondents reported some college, and the typical employee had between 5 and 10 years of employment experience. Most were married, and, interestingly, only 17% were male, which reflects the high proportion of women employed by credit unions.
What are the credit union implications?
To the extent that credit union employees mirror ordinary members, this research supports the idea that remote learning tools like online education can improve financial knowledge and lead to better financial behavior. That’s promising in a cultural environment that increasingly prizes on-demand information access and in which members may be less inclined to sit through traditional financial education. Granted, the time-intensive modules used in this research were given to users with some financial expertise, but if they can learn and show positive behavior changes, how much more effective might similar education be for the average member?
This report is sponsored by the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Investor Protection Trust (IPT).