New Conversation: Financial Wellness in Higher Education


“Financially successful now and in the future”: Financial Wellness in Higher Education

A Conversation with Mallorie Smith

In December 2023, JPHE Senior Editor Z.W. Taylor spoke with Mallorie Smith, the Financial Wellness Coordinator for Mississippi State University and the Student Money Management Center. In this Conversation, Mallorie discusses how her background in psychology, business, and instructional technology informs her current role educating students on personal finance topics like budgeting, investing, and student loans. She highlights the need for financial wellness programs since most students lack money knowledge, even those with wealthy parents. The goal is to empower students through an approachable educational space to talk finances openly. Smith argues these programs benefit individuals and institutions by reducing student financial stress and creating more capable alumni.


Zach Taylor: Can you first introduce yourself and what you do and where you're from and also kind of your education background? I mean, what do you have degrees in and what do you do professionally?

Mallorie Smith: Yes, my name is Mallorie Smith. I'm currently the Financial Wellness Coordinator for Mississippi State University and the Student Money Management Center. My background - I grew up in Southaven, Mississippi, just below Memphis. I went to State for my undergraduate degree. I got an undergraduate degree in psychology, which heavily influences what I do now. I started to go into psychology and I got involved in a really big publication and I interned at Harvard. But then I got into grad school for clinical psychology and discovered it really wasn't where I wanted to be. So I decided to finish out the year and I left, but I didn't really know what I was going to do after that. I had just gotten married so I ended up sitting at our house trying to figure out my next step.  What I ended up doing was I started to manage my new family's budget. My husband had done it before me with a system that was complex and didn't really work well for me. I use his budget now as an example of what not to do with my students because it was like 8 pages on an Excel - complicated. So I started to feel more in control of this chaotic world. I got really interested in personal finance as a hobby. I ended up getting a job at a tax firm as a receptionist and that amplified my interest. Eventually I went back to state, got my MBA using tuition remission. Now I'm getting my PhD in Instructional Technology and Workforce Development, focusing on the education side. So I've brought in psychology, business and instructional technology to create what I'm doing now.

Zach Taylor: Absolutely. The idea of financial wellness involves your whole education story - the psychological aspects, the business knowledge, and now applying instructional technology. It makes sense you're in this position because it's difficult to find someone qualified to lead financial wellness programs.  Quickly, a lot of people aren't familiar with programs like yours. What does a financial wellness program at a college look like? 

Mallorie Smith: Our main task is educating students in personal finance - giving them the knowledge, skills and resources to manage finances and be financially successful now and in the future. We want them to be able to answer their budgeting, credit, investing and other money questions themselves.  We reach students through outreach and events like financial wellness workshops, online resources like our iGrad platform and website, and our peer financial coaches who work one-on-one with students on any financial issue. The coaches connect as fellow students to make it less intimidating to discuss money issues.

Zach Taylor: Right, there are so many cultural differences around money. I always think of first generation students - if parents went to college, they pass that knowledge to kids. But even wealthy parents often don't pass financial knowledge to kids.  I interviewed students about where they get money information and many said nowhere - even students with doctor/lawyer parents. So programs like yours have to educate them, especially pairing similar students so discussions aren't intimidating or taboo.

Mallorie Smith: Yes, in the South we don't talk about money - not with kids, neighbors, anyone. Some students help parents budget, but most know little about money. Meanwhile, media pushes spending or risky investments. Students know terms but not application. Inflation stresses people, but they don't know how to prepare. Buying is the easiest message to respond to. 

Zach Taylor: We discuss money, politics and religion constantly in media, but they're taboo in person. Yet politics and religion have intentional spaces for discussion, unlike personal finance. That's what you've created - an intentional space to talk money without intimidation. 

Mallorie Smith: Yes! Students feel scared because they think they should know money but were never taught. We make it educational and approachable.

Zach Taylor: What topics do you cover and how do students apply that? 

Mallorie Smith: Budgeting is the biggest topic - having a money plan combats impulses and works for them. Investing, credit, student loans and repayment plans are also popular. We avoid taxes and refinancing details - instead focusing on resources to learn themselves. We can't give advice, only educational options to empower their decisions.  Regarding application, we lack formal evaluations but I've seen huge confidence improvements. One student fell victim to a money scam so we were able to educate them on ways to get back their money – and they got some back – and identify future red flags. Another fully funded student with a child was extremely stressed but realized she was perfectly on track after budgeting. The emotions when they feel empowered makes this work so rewarding. 

Zach Taylor: What's the pitch to higher ed institutions to adopt financial wellness programs? 

Mallorie Smith: Show data on reduced financial stress - our students see 29% lower stress after one session. Even without data, site visits showcase potential impact empowering students' lives and futures. Financially capable alumni also become more successful contributors to the school. And addressing finances helps the whole student thrive in all areas of wellness. Programs need few resources but make wide impacts. 

Zach Taylor: You have to show administration how it impacts the full university, though we wish budget priorities were student-first. This works for all student subgroups too.  What's the future of financial wellness programs? 

Mallorie Smith: Technology integration through AI and VR simulations will grow. Personalization to student needs and questions is key over one-size-fits all. Understanding behavioral finance and psychological aspects around money decisions will help avoid financial trauma stagnating progress. Peer coach diversity also ensures relating to more student perspectives. 

Zach Taylor: Amazing. Thank you for sharing!