Good decisions = rewards: Approach draws major donor to UC Student Enterprise program

A pencil. An eraser. A notebook. Third-graders eagerly stand in line to purchase these items with currency they have earned for good behavior. Each “buck” they have represents a good decision.

Providing elementary students with a chance to succeed is the core of the Student Enterprise Program of the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center.

It combines lessons in financial literacy with opportunities to achieve for 5,900 children in 26 Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky schools.

The approach sparked Nicholas Sargen’s interest in StEP. He is an economist and former chief investment officer of Fort Washington Investment Advisors.

“StEP teaches kids how to make decisions and that decisions have consequences,” Sargen said. “It teaches them they have the power to direct their lives by the decisions they make.”

Sargen was looking for a way to honor his wife, Susan, who died in 2016. Deciding StEP was the perfect solution, he gave $500,000 to create the Susan Sargen StEP Fund.

“Susan had so many wonderful and significant qualities that I sometimes struggle with how to capture her entirety,” he said. “I have thought deeply about how I could honor her memory.”

An advocate for the disadvantaged, she spent her career and volunteer life helping others.

“Susan was an economist, believing that the discipline’s rigor and models offer a framework for understanding the plight of the poor and a path toward addressing inequality,” Sargen said.

She was also the mother of four sons, in whom she instilled the importance of serving others.

Four times a year, elementary students can spend their bucks at the StEP store, which goes to their schools and includes school supplies and toys. For many, this is the only time they receive new supplies, aside from backpack drives at the beginning of the school year.

The approach works, according to UC Economics Center Director Julie Heath. Allowing students to earn StEP bucks for good behavior results in increased attendance, fewer classroom infractions and better preparedness. 

“We want our StEP students to see that school success leads to life success,” said Heath. “Not only are we teaching them life skills, we work on increasing self-esteem so they feel good about their positive choices and coming to school.”

Doing something for others is popular among students. While they are able to save their StEP bucks and buy bigger-ticket items such as basketballs or digital cameras, many choose to combine their savings and donate to a nonprofit. The center’s metrics show students from the most impoverished schools are its biggest donors.

“It teaches them that they have the ability to do good in the community even when they have little,” Sargen said.

“We are so grateful for the Sargen gift,” Heath said. “The program runs on donations, and because the gift is an endowment, it will provide us with financial stability.”

Sargen believes he made the right decision about investing in youth.

“You want to give where you know the money is being well-used and well-spent,” he said. “I just know Susan would be a strong supporter.”

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