Q&A with a UW–Madison personal finance professor

person using a calculator and holding papers in the other hand

Clifford Robb is an associate professor in the Department of Consumer Science, housed in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studies financial decision-making, college student financial behavior and financial satisfaction and well-being.

Robb will teach in the UW–Madison Online personal finance program. We asked him about his work and the new UW–Madison Online personal finance degree.

How long have you been at UW–Madison and what courses will you teach for the online personal finance degree?

I’ve been here at UW–Madison for four years and have taught advanced consumer finance, which focuses on investments, estate planning, financial service innovations and family financial counseling. As we add our online personal finance degree, our goal is to have faculty teach in both domains—online and in-person. I’ll likely continue to teach advanced consumer finance online and possibly a section of family financial counseling.

What influenced your decision to study the field of personal finance?

headshot of Professor Clifford Robb
Clifford Robb is an associate professor in the Department of Consumer Science at UW–Madison.

After studying psychology as an undergraduate, I was interested in looking at an advanced degree program in psychology, but a family friend at the University of Alabama encouraged me to look into consumer economics. This field really distills economics back down to people and households—individual decision-making units. By marrying economic theory specific to markets with the inner workings of household units, consumer economics brings psychology and sociology to the economics arena.

After getting a master’s at the University of Alabama, I went to get my PhD at the University of Missouri where I found a deeper focus on consumer decision-making and consumer behavior but also household finances. I was able to take courses in the CFP (Certified Financial Planner) curriculum as a master’s student and begin to teach them as a doctoral candidate.

There are good reasons to study consumer economics right now. Over the past five or six decades in the U.S., we have shifted to a market model in which most risk is born by individuals and households—think retirement and long-term healthcare. We don’t have the strong social safety net that we used to have or that other countries have. How people make choices with their money and how they prepare for future risks is critical—again, retirement comes to mind, or saving for a child’s college education. We all have big challenging financial decisions that we have to face. It’s so important to understand how households are making those choices.

What are your areas of interest in personal finance and why are they important to you?

I study student loan debt and college student financial well-being in my research. For the last 15 to 20 years, college graduates have dealt with unprecedented levels of borrowing. Many graduates are in situations where they have to start right out of the gates with a large amount of debt. This is not something former generations had to deal with. Something has to change. We went from a social mindset of education as a public good to education as a private good in practice. But there are positive benefits to higher education not just for the individuals earning their degrees but also for society more broadly, and we should honor this shared benefit for our community by investing in it again in a meaningful way.

What are some things you’ve learned about the personal finance arena that might surprise people?

A lot of people come in with romanticized views of investments as exciting, necessarily complex and largely meant for very wealthy people. Hollywood stereotypes of trading floors and the life of a wealth manager abound. But for the most part, the typical investment strategy is often simple, and it should be. One of our goals is to help people better understand the process, as investing can be safe, easy and beneficial. We want to train professionals to identify unnecessary costs and get the most benefit out of their investments. It’s unfortunately easy for people to sell consumer products that are overly complicated or unnecessarily costly because many consumers don’t have the information they need on investing.

What makes this online degree a great option for students?

What’s nice about the UW–Madison Online bachelor’s in personal finance is that students will learn skills that are increasingly necessary, whether you want to be an entrepreneur or find good employment elsewhere. Demand for these skills is high and growing. Plus, we’re training people to become helpers and advisors. There’s a lot of demand for that, too.

How do you plan to engage students in the online setting with personal finance?

I will have a mix of materials and ways of teaching, some live online and some recorded for flexibility. We designed this program for students who have other demands on their lives while getting this degree, so we won’t have regular lecture meetings. But offering opportunities for engagement is an important piece. Students will have the opportunity to work together on problem sets, for example, and we have technology that helps us do cool things, like engagement embedded in websites. We want to make students feel connected to the program, so we’re creating a holistic experience.

What kind of careers could a graduate of this program be prepared for?

First, with just the addition of an elective course, students could be eligible to sit for the CFP exam. This prepares them for financial planning in a broad sense and is recognized as one of the highest marks for a financial service professional. Students could also enter any of the traditional financial advising jobs in banking and insurance. It’s really a good foundational degree.

What else do you want students to know about yourself or about this new degree opportunity?

One of the most important things about the UW–Madison Online personal finance degree is that we are sharing important life skills. We have lots of undergraduates who do not necessarily want to be financial planners or advisors. But they still tell me they really value the things they learn in personal finance courses, and they’ve become their family’s go-to person on financial matters. These are just really good skills to have.

As for myself, I really enjoy teaching. I like engaging with students and feel strongly about the quality of our courses. I’ve been doing this for 13 years and it just feels like it’s constantly a fresh experience because it’s always a new batch of students and a new classroom—whether that classroom is in-person, online, or a combination of the two. After working hard with my colleagues to help launch this UW–Madison Online degree, I’m confident students will find a robust and rewarding experience with us.