Culture & Diversity

Here's how one advisor is tackling the student debt crisis

At an early age, RJFS advisor Todd Sanford knew he wanted to do something special to leave a mark on his community. His father was a generous businessman in the auto industry of downtown Detroit who hired underprivileged youth to help them get out of poverty and onto a promising career path. 

Todd’s father serves as his inspiration to give back to others, and motivates him to help youth and young adults plan for a better future, too, by making wise financial decisions.

The student loan crisis

“There’s a problem in our society with the way most students understand budgeting,” said Todd, CEO and founder of Sanford Financial Services in Portage, Michigan. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a fine arts major or in engineering. Everybody needs to have this skill set.” 

Today, roughly 70% of college students graduate with a significant amount of loans.* And for most, they graduate without understanding the implications of debt.

This financial burden not only influences their spending habits over the next decade, but also their career choices, the amount they put into savings, and retirement plans. A recent study predicted that students who graduated from college in 2015 will have to delay retirement until the age of 75, in part because of the increasing burden of student debt.*

“Budgeting and saving is a real-life process that needs to happen at all levels, but the best place to teach it is in a university setting,” said Todd. “It’s all about awareness – an awakening for students to take control of their finances early on, before they take out loans or apply for new credit cards.” 

Financial wellness for all

Over his 35-year career, Todd has tackled these topics with students from his alma mater, Western Michigan University (WMU), through speaking engagements, mentorship and scholarship programs. Yet, he’s always had the desire to do more – to leave a legacy.

“I thought I wanted to make a large gift to the university … but that wasn’t really the ultimate dream,” said Todd. “It was to build something greater inside for personal financial planning – something greater for the good of the community, as well as students.”

So Todd worked alongside WMU faculty and Dr. Jim DeMello, chair of the department of finance and commercial law, to address the condition of financial literacy across the university and the nation. Together, they created the Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness.

Everyone can be an expert

The primary goal of the Sanford Center is to help disadvantaged WMU students graduate, and secondly, to minimize their debt after graduation, as the average student graduates with $37,000 in student loans.

“Many students are either incapable or unprepared to pay back debt after graduation,” said Todd. “Others quit college altogether. The graduation rate is not nearly as high as it needs to be.”

For that reason, the Sanford Center will strive to open the eyes of WMU students, helping them not only understand the implications of taking out student loans, but showing them ways to make better financial decisions during and after their college experience.

“We’re also training students to become peer-to-peer counselors, since they are more likely to be influenced by one another than someone two to three times their age.”

Sanford Financial Services, the WMU faculty and the center’s newly named advisory board are inviting students to become the financial “experts” on campus. They hope to not only bring visibility to WMU and expand education, but influence all majors to become interested in the business school or a personal financial planning career path.

“The center helps to train our students, because now they will be providing service under the direction of financial planners with Sanford Financial Services,” said Dr. Satish Dashpande, dean of the WMU Haworth College of Business. “It will help them in the curriculum, and also provide free advice to students … and anyone who needs it.” 

In addition to students, the Sanford Center will reach the greater Southwest Michigan community with free workshops, seminars, summer camps, and research.

“I’m passionate about opening up the center to the underserved in our community to give pro-bono services as it relates to personal financial planning and budgeting,” said Todd. “It provides an opportunity for those who wouldn’t normally come through my office to get the assistance they need to move ahead in life.”

Programs like these aim to stir the minds of underprivileged youth, young adults, families and the elderly, who need help understanding budgeting basics, how credit cards work, how to save for the future, and more.

“He is the kind of alum who’s every president’s dream,” said Dr. Edward Montgomery, WMU president. “He has a passion for this university, a passion for the students, and a knowledge about how he can connect those students to opportunities on the outside.”

Leaving a legacy

As the Sanford Center opened in October, Todd is reflecting on his decade-long dream that’s now a reality, and encouraging others in the industry to get involved in financial literacy, too.

“To help lift people out of poverty … how can you top that?” said Todd. “I have been blessed with the ability to give back and take some of my resources to leave a legacy – to give students and community members hope to live a better life financially.”

To learn more about the Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness, click here.

*CNBC via NerdWallet study