The JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a national nonprofit advocacy group that aims to improve the financial management skills of America’s youth, draws lots of attention for its surveys measuring how much kids really understand money. Last spring, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke even led a joint news conference to announce JumpStart’s most recent findings, calling it “a leader among organizations seeking to improve the personal financial literacy of students from kindergarten to the university level.”
The 180 corporations, government agencies and nonprofits that are partners and provide financial support to the coalition get prominent billing on JumpStart’s Website, and share in the prestige of a group that promotes national standards for financial literacy education in the country’s classrooms.
But also included in the coalition is CompuCredit, an Atlanta subprime lender that specializes in high-rate credit cards, payday loans, auto financing and debt collection, focusing on customers with poor credit scores. In December of last year, CompuCredit reached a $114 million settlement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Trade Commission, which had charged CompuCredit and two partner banks with deceiving hundreds of thousands of customers by failing to properly disclose upfront fees and credit limits on their cards, thereby sinking borrowers further in debt. In addition, JumpStart’s Southeast regional director, a paid consultant who serves as a liaison to the group’s state affiliates, also counts CompuCredit as a client of his private consulting firm.
JumpStart executive director Laura Levine said that she was aware that CompuCredit belongs to JumpStart’s coalition, and that the coalition’s Southeast Regional Director William Cheeks also works for CompuCredit as a consultant. But, she said, no questions had been raised about the situation until an inquiry from TWI. Levine said JumpStart staff would explore the matter.
“No one’s called it to our attention as a problem,” Levine said. “Now that we’ve talked about it we will look into it further.”
JumpStart is not taxpayer-funded, although government agencies like the FDIC and Freddie Mac are partners. Corporate partners pay $5,000 annual dues to the coalition, with lesser fees for government groups and nonprofits. Membership has to be accepted by the board of directors, Levine said. Businesses that only do payday loans would never be approved for membership, she said, but the situation “gets into a real grey area” when a company, like CompuCredit, offers a range of financial products.
JumpStart describes its mission as promoting financial literacy through advocacy, research, standards for financial literacy education, and educational resources.
It also maintains an online clearinghouse of approved personal finance materials for educational use. Its partners provide financial support, and JumpStart in turn offers guidance and resources to help member organizations with their own financial literacy efforts. It does not allow any coalition members to sell or distribute their own products through JumpStart.
Regarding Cheeks, Levine noted that he is a consultant, not an employee, and that JumpStart can’t dictate what clients his private firm might accept. “We’re a coalition of organizations and entities that share a commitment to financial literacy education,” Levine said. “We have a lot of financial services firms that may be competitors, or may have different positions from each other. They aren’t working for us. They came to JumpStart to share in our support of financial education and financial literacy efforts.”
But Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, said she found CompuCredit’s involvement with JumpStart troubling.
“I’m disappointed,” said Leech, who also specializes in consumer issues as a Virginia Tech professor. “It’s distasteful, and it doesn’t improve its efforts. I would have absolutely said no to both these situations, at a bare minimum. I have a pretty high expectation for a group like this. There are many professional and academic organizations that I belong to that are members, along with the consumer groups. They’re the entity that everyone is looking to when it comes to measuring financial literacy with a high degree of accuracy.”
Leech added that “I just wouldn’t have thought that their leadership would have wanted to go this way. I’m really sad they’ve gone this route.”
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