Starting Over: A Plea for Mandatory Financial Literacy Education

With the nation watching, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ voice bellows out to thousands of his supporters (and opponents) at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “This election is about the leadership we need to…[make] sure that young people in this country are in good schools and at good jobs, not in jail cells.” The crowd erupts, irrespective of partisanship. “…We have to invest in education!” Sanders shouts over the crowd.

“Invest in education.”  We hear this exact or a similar term used by American politicians too frequently to quantify, but what does it really mean? In a recent (2016) Gallup survey,  40 percent of parents stated that they have “some” faith in the public school system; additionally, 29 percent of parents answered that they have “very little” faith, the highest this figure has been since Gallup first started recording it in 1973. Can we really throw money at an increasingly unpopular public school system and expect positive results? The American people are making a loud statement that is getting harder and harder to ignore: There is clearly something amiss with American public education.

Although the dissatisfaction with public education in America is nothing to celebrate, there is a silver lining: We have a powerful opportunity to broaden mandatory financial education, a topic that is critical to Americans’ ability to successfully manage the ongoing challenges that the American economy poses to themselves and their families – challenges that top the list of their most worrisome problems today.

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Levels of financial instruction at the public primary and secondary school level are highly uneven across the states, and today, young adults and near-adults have record low levels of financial literacy. In fact, only 18 percent of young millennials (ages 18-26) exhibit high levels of financial literacy.

Financial education outside of primary and secondary school classrooms is available to many young people.  But it is hard to dispute that there are more distractions now than there have ever been in the past and between video games and the Internet, it takes a lot to motivate young people in modern America. Add in the outside cost of most financial literacy classes (like this one in Oklahoma) and any sensible parents would struggle to rationalize sending their children to a financial education program.

A logical first step to mend these issues is requiring financial literacy education in all public schools; there is a direct correlation between mandatory financial education and improved consumer behavior. Take three states (Georgia, Idaho, and Texas) that have already implemented mandatory financial literacy education for example. Within three years, credit scores of young adults who had participated in such instruction improved by 11 points in Georgia, 16 points in Idaho, and a whopping 32 points in Texas.

Some other states, like New York, require “personal financial instruction incorporated into other subject matter.”  Though this may sound convincing, it is basically a bunch of buzzwords.  How do I know? Well, I attended New York public schools for 14 years and could not come up with one instance of infused “personal financial instruction.” In fact, few students in these particular states receive any kind of financial tutoring, exemplified by the fact that these students perform no better on average on a financial literacy test than students in states with no legal requirement. It is hard to ignore how poorly implemented the current system is and there is no doubt that a significant reformation is needed.

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Some companies like ING are taking financial literacy education into their own hands. Through their Girls Inc. program, ING offers cost-free financial literacy classes and workshops for girls between the ages of six and eighteen.  Nonprofits like Cornell University’s Act for Youth program engages teenagers, both male and female, in activities like lecture circuits and collaborative seminars designed to improve future consumer knowledge.

Though free programs like these offer concrete community benefits, it is time to finally take a stand and change the economic future of America. If we do not require financial education in all American public schools, we as a nation and more importantly in our communities are missing an opportunity to change our economic future.

– Sam Blunt, University of Michigan, Intern

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