Credit unions give hands-on financial education to students

| Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

Two Westmoreland County high schools are the first in the region to introduce in-school banking programs, initiatives that could impact students' financial literacy, an expert said.

Penn-Trafford and Norwin school districts each teamed up with local credit unions to launch student credit union branches, which operate twice weekly during lunch time, offering checking accounts, savings accounts and other banking services. Leaders cited money-management education as their goal.

Jay Sukits, a University of Pittsburgh finance professor and a former investment banker, lauded the programs as “very valuable.”

The Pennsylvania Credit Union Association lists 52 student credit-union branches at high schools and colleges in the state. Many are in eastern and central Pennsylvania.

Learning by experience, as opposed to in the classroom, has a strong impact, said Michael Wishnow, the association's senior vice president for communications and public relations.

The program fits with credit unions' engagement in providing financial literacy, he said.

“The student branch doesn't make money,” he said. “It truly is a partnership to help kids learn. ... The personal finance and the money management is so critically important.”

Wishnow and others involved with the student credit-union branches said they are unaware of any banks with similar programs in this area.

The Westmoreland County programs are cutting-edge in the region, said Linda Stein, assistant vice president of business development and marketing at the Westmoreland Community Federal Credit Union.

“We're hoping that it's going to catch on and we're going to be experiencing a lot of other schools wanting to do this,” she said.

Penn-Trafford's Warrior Cash Stash, a branch of the Westmoreland credit union, debuted last month in the high school cafeteria after the credit union approached school officials with the idea.

High school students get paid to serve as tellers and to work at other credit union branches. Interested students applied for the teller jobs, then underwent training at the credit union.

Students already have opened accounts. They also can apply for loans and a credit card, with parental consent.

“Prior to the federal credit union working with them, the students had no idea the difference between a savings and checking account. I think it's opened their eyes,” high school Assistant Principal Greg Capoccioni said.

The idea began a few years ago, credit union officials said, when they noticed during a presentation at the high school the need for financial literacy education.

“Unfortunately, the teachers don't have the time that they had in the past to dedicate to this important issue,” said Susan Lawson, the credit union's director of business development. “It's very important that we educate these young people.”

Norwin High School opened a branch of the Norwin Teachers Federal Credit Union in February. Credit union officials had dreamed of the program for years with a goal to teach financial literacy, credit union CEO Amy Lichwa said.

Students volunteer as tellers, and more than 50 students have signed up for accounts, according to district figures.

“We are very satisfied with how it's gone, but we want to continue to market it with the students' help and just continue to grow,” Lichwa said.

Credit union employees oversee both student branches. Both districts enlisted the help of students to launch the programs.

Penn-Trafford graphic arts students created a sign for the credit union, shop students built the teller station and others developed the “Warrior Cash Stash” name.

At Norwin, students designed and painted the credit union's logo and its catchphrase, “It's brave to save.”

Sukits, of Pitt, works to educate high school students about financial literacy through panel discussions. He is creating a class at Pitt to teach business students about that topic.

Overall, he said, the programs seem positive.

“I think that anything students can learn — especially at the age of high school students — is worthwhile from the standpoint of understanding money, understanding that there's value behind it, understanding that it takes a lot of hard work to get it,” Sukits said. “The idea of being able to work in a simulated environment or even a real environment like a credit union would, I hope, pass on the idea to students that money's valuable, you need to save it.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or

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