When it comes to providing financial education to its customers, $1.5 billion-asset Availa Bank in Carroll, Iowa, goes above and beyond. Bank patrons’ college-bound children are now able to get specialized financial education through the community bank’s program “Kick Off to College Nights.”

“When my kids started college, I realized the entire college process, such as scholarships, the RAI, the FAFSA, the EFC and more could go on and on,” says Lisa K. Irlbeck, marketing director and community education and outreach director for Availa Bank. “It was all so confusing, and there wasn’t any ‘one spot fits all’ for helping people cut through that confusion.” 

Irlbeck realized that if she was struggling, there were other parents out there in the same situation. In response, she created the program, providing an opportunity for incoming college students and their parents to learn detailed information on the ins and outs of financing a college education.

Usually offered every September, the program not only covers what Availa Bank can offer students going off to college but also brings in a lineup of speakers, including:

  • FAFSA experts from the Iowa College Access Network 

  • Iowa Student Loan (ISL) Education Lending personnel, who can provide assistance if a family isn’t getting the financial help with the scholarships, grants or other financial aid they had hoped for

  • Local high school guidance counselors, who can help with local scholarship questions and explain the various types of college entrance requirements

  • Local community college representatives

According to Irlbeck, local community colleges can present alternative options for students not looking to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

In addition, Availa Bank currently has seven FAFSA-certified staff members. To qualify for this certification, they had to take training sessions and pass an exam that enables them to help people with questions they have while filling out their FAFSAs. 

“We also partner with the Iowa College Aid Network to help families with the more tricky or unique situations,” says Irlbeck. “We help families walk through their situations and then try to help them figure out how to appropriately fill out the FAFSA. If we can’t answer their questions, we then refer them to the ICAN team.”

Growing class sizes

The popularity and value of the program has been growing. “I started the event in 2015 in Carroll, Iowa, which is where our main branch is located,” Irlbeck says. “The first year, attendance wasn’t terrific, but since then, we’ve seen increases annually.” 

Irlbeck says she receives calls regarding college financial items at least once every quarter—a testament to the need and demand for college preparedness events. 

Availa Bank has even had to change the venue for College Nights twice due to outgrowing its space. In the early days, the annual event was held at the bank’s main office in Carroll, but as the event expanded to other communities that the bank serves, it attracted more and more participants. To accommodate the growing number of students, the bank has held College Night at larger venues including the local chamber meeting room. This year, the local junior college will host the event.

“If we can help [families with college-bound children] walk through the process and show them ways they can make college work for their family, it is a great feeling of accomplishment.”
—Lisa K. Irlbeck, Availa Bank

“I believe the Kick Off to College Night… is a wonderful opportunity for parents and students to hear from professionals regarding financial aid, the benefits of completing the FAFSA and programs offered through our local [community college] campus,” says Dennis McCarthy, Carroll High School guidance counselor and psychology teacher. “It is a one-stop shopping experience.”

Benefits for all

Irlbeck finds it personally rewarding to help students and their parents with the college application process. “When parents look at the cost of college, they immediately have sticker shock, especially when some schools come in well over $40,000 a year,” she says. “That is a lot of money and can be a very scary and intimidating thing for families to think about. If we can help them walk through the process and show them ways they can make college work for their family, it is a great feeling of accomplishment.”

Overall, the program has been beneficial for the bank, as well. “We have not only opened numerous student accounts; we’ve also received a lot of positive publicity from the event,” Irlbeck says. “The feedback from attendees has been amazing. We even have people from other banks attend our College Night events with their families, which, in a small town, is the biggest compliment of all.”

In 2022, the bank sponsored College Nights for parents and students from six of the communities it serves. “Thinking about all of the necessary steps for students to take to pursue postsecondary education can seem like a daunting task,” says Bailey Konz, counselor at Kuemper Catholic High School, “but events like [College Nights] really help break things down into more of a checklist format.”