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Ready for the Real World: A Seminar Prepares Senior for Their Post-College Financial Lives

Pomona College's popular personal finance seminar helps seniors prepare for everything from salary negotiations to apartment hunting to retirement planning.

This fall, dozens of Pomona College seniors gathered around the tables in Frank Dining Hall once a week to explore, you know, the usual stuff that occupies the minds of college students: retirement planning, disability insurance, tax brackets.

Seriously, though, these students will be heading out into the real world (or graduate school) in a matter of months. And while their knowledge of politics, art history or neuroscience should launch them into dynamic careers and meaningful lives, it probably won’t help them know what to look for in an apartment lease or car insurance.

So Pomona’s Career Development Office and Economics Department teamed up to offer a “Life After College: Personal Financial Planning” seminar covering everything from salary negotiations to investing basics to learning how to read between the lines in apartment ads (example: “up-and-coming neighborhood” means not-so-great right now). More than 90 students – a quarter of the senior class – signed up for the series of four two-hour seminars.

“There was a lot of student demand, students saying ‘we want to learn this stuff but we don’t know how,’” says Michael Steinberger, the assistant professor of economics who helped develop the class with Carl Martellino, director of the Career Development Office.

Students get no academic credit for the seminar, but they expect it will pay off handsomely down the road. Diana Khuu ’07 appreciates the chance to learn about finances “before you make major mistakes.” As for the content of the seminar, “everything has just been kind of shocking because young people don't think about the logistics of what it's like to live on your own,” she says.

“They get into all the nitty-gritty,” adds Doris Lee ’07 of the class. “Just how detailed it is – it’s impressive.”

Parents will be pleased as well. Senior Class President Alexandra Romano brought her class binder home over Thanksgiving and her dad was "really impressed by it."

Homework assignments for students include creating a monthly/yearly budget, accessing and reviewing their credit report and looking up rental rates for the city they plan to move to after graduating.

Hot topics include finding an apartment, sorting through health insurance plans and the dangers of credit card debt. In one session, Martellino, lecturer for the classes, rattles off some startling stats about plastic:

  • How much credit card debt does the average college student have? $2,500
  • What percentage of college students have a maxed-out credit card? 50 percent
  • Between 1990 and 2002, how much did the average credit card debt of college students increase? 55 percent.

These facts have the room abuzz with chatter. And the next week brings another shocker, as students learn they might need somewhere in the ballpark of $5 million to retire comfortably. (That’s accounting for inflation and remember, these are young people who won’t likely be retiring for another 40 or more years.)

Other tips from the seminar deal with more immediate issues, such as drawing up a personal budget, and the importance of looking at both salary and benefits when evaluating job offers.

Martellino, who holds a stockbroker’s license and runs his own part-time financial planning practice, has long advocated educating students in money matters as part of colleges’ career development offerings. It was in his previous career-development position at UCLA that he developed a two-hour talk on the subject, first addressing others in the career development field about the importance of financial issues, and also speaking to students at CalTech and Occidental College.

He brought that talk with him to Pomona, but expanded it into this four-session class last year, when economics students approached that department about their need for a personal finance course. “When I got a chance to expand it, I thought, ‘oh, this is great because I can fit everything in.’ Now I’ve put about 15 hours worth of material into eight,’’ says Martellino, who expects students will go back over the materials later on, as needed.

So, along with a great education and fond memories, many members of the Class of 2007 will be leaving Pomona with a thick black binder loaded with tips to make the transition from college to the real world smoother – and richer.