The combined love for college athletics in Kansas and the credit union movement’s passion for financial literacy has developed into a unique partnership in the Sunflower State, as Meritrust Credit Union has become the financial well-being partner for three of the state’s largest universities.
Meritrust Credit Union ($1.7B, Wichita, KS) has been based in Wichita since its founding in 1935, but has more recently branched out to other parts of the state. In addition to its 13 branches in the Wichita area, it also hosts single branches in the college towns of Lawrence (home to the University of Kansas) and Manhattan (home to Kansas State University), both about two hours away. Along with those newer relationships, Meritrust has a long-standing partnership with Wichita State University, and the goal behind the latest project between the credit union and all three schools is to literally take financial literacy inside the locker room.
“The vision of this program is to make a difference in the lives of our athletes,” says Evan Wilson, Meritrust’s chief experience officer. “Members in Kansas have a passion for athletics, so we thought we could combine those passions by investing in our student athletes. Their coaches are going to teach them to be a better athlete and they will earn a degree, but we are also going to teach them to be a better prepared for life.”
The partnerships Meritrust has developed with the three schools allows the credit union to work in coordination with each athletic department, gaining access to student athletes to provide them valuable knowledge about how to be a wise consumer, along with how to make and follow a budget.
“Budgeting is a key part of financial responsibility,” says Chris Wolgamott, Meritrust’s director of financial wellbeing. A lot of these students are away from home for the first time and need to know how to manage money now.
An alumnus of both Wichita State and K-State, Wolgamott acknowledges that not all of these students will end up as professional athletes, so the idea isn’t just to teach them how to manage a future fortune. Rather, he says, there’s an emphasis on consumer finance and understanding credit, no matter what the future holds.
“We want to build positive habits for them now, so no matter where they go they can carry that forward, he says.”
The demands of a student athlete at an NCAA Division I school can be challenging, to say the least. Even in the off-season there are regular practices, team meetings, and weight training, in addition to studying and classroom time as full-time students. During the season it can be even more challenging when travel is added into the mix. Each school’s athletic departments understand these demands, but also places a high value on the education Meritrust is providing student athletes. While the credit union works closely with the departments to schedule time including group reality fairs that bring together athletes across multiple sports keeping up with the some teams has been a challenge.
Wolgamott doesn’t necessarily take credit for helping win titles, but the Kansas Jayhawks won the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball championship in a nail-biter, and we had gone into the locker room earlier in the season and taught the players right there.
Wolgamott has been at Meritrust for 23 years, the past 15 of them focused on financial education.
“This is not a new role for me, but it is the culmination of my years of experience, combined with these new partnerships that we are able to help these students gain a better financial education, he says.”
He was financial well-being before it was cool, adds Wilson.
Wolgamott and his colleagues teach many of the classes for athletes, but he notes that Meritrust team members further afield have been instrumental in helping the credit union stay connected with different universities, including conducting financial education sessions as part of cultivating and maintaining those partnerships.
Although the effort has grown and evolved during the pandemic, which included a temporary switch to an interactive online format, Meritrust is able to run the program with just one full-time employee in addition to Wolgamott and a student intern from K-State. The dynamic partnership is something the athletes and the schools mutually find value in.
“[Our] partnership with Meritrust provides an opportunity for our student athletes to develop personally and professionally outside of the classroom and competition venue,” says Andrew Moses, assistant director of athletic academic services at Wichita State. “The engaging and interactive education provided by industry professionals creates a positive and supportive learning environment for our student-athletes.”
Not only is it rewarding for Meritrust to be involved in their communities across the state, but the focus remains on helping the universities instill life skills in the students.
“When they are student athletes, they’re focused on getting through school and learning their sport, says Wilson. Our focus is making sure they are financially successful in life.”