How digital money tools can improve student retention

Danielle Coe, head of student finance and residential allocations at University of Hertfordshire, explains how tech tools can help students plan their finances, and see the value of HE

With financial difficulty now the primary predictor of student attrition, three years ago my team knew it was time to act on the ever-emerging link between financial and overall student wellbeing. We’d seen a trend towards hardship loan and emergency loan requests, while at the same time, students were increasingly turning to pay day lenders and gambling to make ends meet.

Investing in the overall student experience at the University of Hertfordshire is core to our ethos; UPlanner figures show 64% of UK students with financial anxiety say it affects their mental health, which inevitably affects academic and personal outcomes for the student body.

From the archive: Financial education in a cashless society (blog)

With 60% of our home undergraduates from household incomes of £25K or under (over 9,000 students), making financial education a priority for our university became critical to our retention – and recruitment – strategy. This is how we built a proactive financial education strategy grounded in an innovative tech platform to drive measurable engagement and real impact in our students’ lives.

Working in partnership

Our approach was to develop a programme to provide support as well as improved student financial literacy and skills, bringing together a robust digital strategy with in-person learning. This included building in specific modules for key stages of the student journey, personalised learning programmes to encourage real shifts in behaviour, and incentivised activity to boost engagement.

To deliver this we partnered with edtech startup Blackbullion, a SaaS subscription platform.

Essential to our strategy was ensuring that the digital learning solutions we used genuinely supported the far-reaching aims of our outreach and admissions teams, including enhancing how we support prospective and soon-to-be students with the transition to university.

35% of students believe the costs of going to university “aren’t worth it”.

YouGov research shows that 35% of students who graduated between 2010 and 2017 believe that the costs of going to university “aren’t worth it”. In light of this, effective retention starts with demystifying the student funding process, promoting the financial case for attending uni, and involving parents and guardians in the preparation.

Supporting the whole student journey

Successful financial education demands support and resources at every touchpoint where a student makes a financial decision. This is why it’s essential to deliver resources throughout the student journey, starting with budgeting activities in the university’s student outreach programmes, to encourage good financial habits before even arriving on campus. We also actively engage prospective parents and carers with special open evenings and drop-in sessions at open days; this element is particularly useful in supporting first-generation households.

Digging deeper, key parts of our platform support students with access to actionable insights and the financial knowledge they need, as part of their on-boarding process. Interactive money tools make this personal and tailored to each student’s individual financial needs alongside sign-posted resources. A budget calculator encourages students to take action before they land on campus and a loan repayment tool helps to reframe concerns around the value of higher education, rather than just the cost of it. Gamified learning content via a mobile-first platform has been essential to building engagement. Lessons are supported with follow-up emails, meaning students have access to financial education in their inbox.

Interactive money tools make this personal and tailored to each student’s individual financial needs alongside sign-posted resources.

Again, we’ve found this rich mix of digital tools embed well when supported with in-person conversations and support. As part of students’ induction process, our team planned a series of talks on funding entitlement, tuition fee liability dates and budgeting advice, together with a mix of activity in high footfall locations. Budgeting your buck workshops, pop-up financial briefings outside lectures on campus and drop-in surgeries in halls of residence underpinned students’ online activity.

To date, 27,886 lessons have been completed, and over 3,000 students are engaged on the platform.

Embedding long-term change

Change has to be about outcomes. Since launching our online tool in 2015, we’ve seen a 37% reduction in applications to hardship funds, and, for the same period, a decrease of 75% in the number of emergency loans issued. This has been supported by a rise in enquiries to the finance team, as our students become more aware of the options available to enable them to become money smarter.

Using this tech platform to drive our retention strategy has proved to be a scalable way to empower students and enable continued self-improvement and essential life-long skills as we seek to break taboos around finance and shift behaviours. At the same time, we have the data insights focusing on how student success and attainment is impacted, so that we can continue to evolve our retention strategy and ensure a university education is accessible to all.

For more information on the University of Hertfordshire’s retention programme please visit