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Student-run branches a cornerstone at Michigan CU
PLYMOUTH, Mich. (2/23/12)--Credit unions nationwide with student-run branches bring the benefits of credit union membership and financial education to today's youth.

Community Financial CU, with $477 million in assets, Plymouth, Mich., is among many Michigan credit unions that take the extra step with their student-run branches in making a commitment to their communities and local school districts.

Community Financial CU, Plymouth, Mich., demonstrates its commitment to youth financial education with 35 student branches. Here, a student volunteer counts change. (Photo provided by Community Financial CU)
Michigan credit unions led the nation--by far--with 58 credit unions fielding 370 student credit unions as of 2010, according the CUNA Center for Personal Finance. The next closest state, Wisconsin, had 86 total student branches.

Community Financial, located in the suburban Detroit, with additional branches in Michigan's lower peninsula, has 35 student-run branches, including 23 elementary branches, eight middle school branches and four high school branches.

The credit union has more elementary than middle and high school branches because the school districts served by the credit union are set up in a tier with more elementary schools feeding into fewer middle schools and ultimately one or two high schools, said Natalie McLaughlin, Community Financial senior education partnership coordinator, said.

Community Financial has offered student branches since 1990. Typically, it adds one or two new student branches each year.

McLaughlin said the credit union has 1,838 members through its student-run branches. In the last academic year, 1,483 students participated as volunteers to run the credit unions.

The credit union's presence in local school systems is a strategic initiative set by the credit union's board, and a reflection of its community charter, McLaughlin said.

"Education has been a strategic cornerstone for our board of directors," McLaughlin said. "As [board members] looked at the credit union's initiatives and thought about what the credit union should represent within the community, they identified education as a priority. They said, 'This is one of the ways we are going to give back to the community, by educating our children.'"

Community Financial dedicates considerable resources to meet that priority. Three part-time and two full-time employees help operate the student branches as education partnership coordinators.

Elementary and middle school branches are open roughly twice a month. High school branches are open about once a week, McLaughlin said. A Community Financial CU partnership coordinator works at each student run branch during the time it is open. The coordinators bring cash to the schools, help with transactions, and use a laptop computer to log into the credit union's mainframe system.

The student branch process begins each fall with a school assembly that includes a financial education element. Students who are interested in working for the student branch fill out job applications and take part in one-on-one job interviews.

McLaughlin and her team also educate the students on preparing for interviews and conducting themselves appropriately during the interview process and while representing the credit union. "Career preparation is part of our education curriculum," McLaughlin said.

Students can hold the role of branch managers, tellers, bookkeepers, computer operators and marketing representatives.

The student-run branches are part of a three-pronged approach Community Financial takes to youth financial education that also includes classroom presentations and donations for special projects and curriculum.

McLaughlin and each of her team members each make two to three classroom presentations on financial education topics each week.

The credit union also provides curriculum supplements and donates money to schools for special projects and curricula. In the 2011, the credit union donated $44,793 to area schools--in addition to its student credit union budget and salaries for employees dedicated to the branches.

"We are looking for ways to support teachers as they are teaching," McLaughlin said. "If there is additional curriculum that teachers feel will be a benefit to their classrooms we help pay for them."

The approach has elevated Community Financial's presence in the community, and also helped attract the students' parents as new members, McLaughlin said.

"We made a decision years ago not to market to parents and teachers," McLaughlin said. "We felt that it was important to the integrity of the program. Both parents and teachers have told us they appreciate that, and as a result they open accounts with us, and they truly appreciate what we do in the community."

The Michigan Credit Union League offers tools for operating and managing a school credit union on the league's website, including a credit union school branch handbook. Use the link.
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