Necessity, goes the old saw, is the mother of invention. When Lisa Ginter, CEO of Lenexa, Kan.-based CommunityAmerica Credit Union, was preparing to send her oldest daughter to college a few years ago, the family found the process of choosing the best school and figuring out how to pay for it all to be confusing and overwhelming.

Fast forward to 2017, and the $2.4 billion credit union has launched its new College and Career Planning program. While many CUs offer some form of assistance regarding student loans or perhaps links to other college-planning resources, CommunityAmerica took the step of hiring two people to lead an in-house team dedicated to providing advice to high school students that is free or low-cost, with a focus on academic and financial preparedness.

The two newest members of the CU’s team, Karly Scholl and Jason Anderson, bring personal expertise to the job, having previously served in roles focused on college admissions, recruitment, financial aid and advising. Scholl worked at The University of Missouri-Kansas City, while Anderson was at Park University.

Karly Scholl, left, and Jason Anderson, of CommunityAmerica CU's College and Career Planning program
Karly Scholl, left, and Jason Anderson, of CommunityAmerica CU's College and Career Planning program

The credit union already has a “strong presence” in the greater Kansas City market, Ginter said, serving more than 200,000 members with 28 branches across the Kansas City region, as well as one in St. Louis.

“Our members are already signing up and we have wonderful partnerships forged with local high schools,” said Ginter. “We are up and running with a wildly successful start. I see nothing but more positive growth in the future, as there is a huge demand for support preparing for and getting through college.”

Creating financial peace of mind
Anderson said the program is not pushing young people toward four-year institutions. “We recognize a lot of jobs require two-year technical schools,” he said.

Scholl said she and Anderson were told the goal was to create financial peace of mind in the college admissions path.

“At that point in the family’s life, the credit union wanted to be there for the whole picture,” she explained. “The credit union’s management team recognized it has a supportive and loyal member base, and they were experts in financing and banking, but it needed outside experts to provide the whole package. You cannot talk about college without talking about financing, but no matter how much money you have you cannot go to college if you are not prepared and qualified.”

Anderson said the program fits in the financial services arm of the credit union.

“It is about retaining members through college,” he said. “It is a win-win because we are adding so much value to the process there is no reason for them to leave the credit union when they graduate.”

Identifying pain points
On the first day Scholl and Anderson were brought in, they had four meetings, one of which was with marketing. Scholl recalled one of the first steps the two took was to request an extra-large Post-It pad and markers.

“We took over an empty office and filled up eight or nine 2-foot-by-3-foot pads,” she said with a laugh. “We had a brainstorming session. With the direction we received from leadership we are moving to supply what we think families need, based on our experience. We intend to hold focus groups to make sure we are meeting the demands of the member base.”

Anderson said the brainstorming sessions identified five pain points when it comes to going to college: financing, college preparation (including checklists for middle schoolers and high schoolers), college and major choice (including personality assessments), admission, and college success and graduation.

“One of the biggest pain points is funding, so we researched how to get money from the government and how to save,” he said.

Scholl said in the first few weeks she and Anderson spent “a lot of time” researching. They read numerous articles by the leaders in the field. “Even though I spent 10 years in admissions and worked with financial aid, I still have so much to learn,” she said.

Once the early framework of the program was in place, Anderson said the two of them held several test meetings with high school-age youth. In addition, they began building external workshops.

“We are spreading the word inside the credit union,” he said. “We have met 80 percent of branches face to face. They give us referrals. When a referral comes in we sit down with the family at the branch that is nearest to them. We deliver customized plans, some of which are eight or nine pages long. We might do multiple meetings with a family depending on the situation.”

Scholl said the bulk of their time in recent months has been spent on meetings with members, plus some meetings with credit union employees. She said they also have reached out to school districts and have had meetings with many district representatives.

“It is part of the vision for the program that we will work with districts,” she said. “They do not know how to fit us in yet, but they are interested in what we do.”

Anderson said the workshops he and Scholl put on are “very strategic” and cover a number of different topics, including college planning or financing. For some topics that do not require one-on-one attention, such as SAT/ACT test prep, they have offered hour-long workshops for up to 100 people at once.

Growing without sacrificing quality
The credit union has created a special page on its website to help promote the service, and those interested in the services offered can use the page to request a meeting with Anderson and Scholl.

At present there is no marketing launch scheduled because, “We already are busy and there are only two of us,” Scholl said, adding, “We are trying to grow at a rate that does not hurt the quality of what we offer.”

Most of the growth, Anderson added, is coming from word of mouth.

“When the kids realize they can go somewhere other than the local state school they get really excited,” Scholl said. “We are trying to clear up misconceptions about college so the families can make decisions. We paint the picture of all the options. College planning can be really overwhelming. We know how to navigate that path.”

Anderson noted the two have developed a proprietary tool to show net price comparisons for private schools that take into account financial aid and scholarships that can significantly reduce the “sticker price” on a big name private school.

“If a kid has the academic qualifications for Stanford, if the family can demonstrate financial need they might be able to go there for the same price as UMKC [University of Missouri-Kansas City],” he said.