School of hard knocks won’t cut it for financially illiterate students

McClatchy-TribuneMarch 14, 2014 

We need to do a better job educating our students about how to handle essential financial decisions. As a professor and academic adviser at a community college, I run into this problem every day.

Most students are graduating high school financially illiterate. They are not taught about credit, budgeting, insurance, savings, retirement or other concepts and practices that can help them make rational financial decisions.

This is according to a national study conducted by the Council for Economic Education, an advocacy organization that trains scores of educators to teach economic and financial literacy.

The facts are grim. Although 43 states have economic and personal finance education in their K-12 standards, only 19 states actually require that schools even offer such a course.What’s more, only 22 require that students take a course in economics.

I teach in an economically depressed city, and I witness the negative effects of this lack of financial literacy in the classroom and, more poignantly, in one-on-one advising sessions.

Though my students are quite resourceful about stretching their hard-earned money, many don’t have the knowledge or skills to make long-term plans for permanently improving their financial lives.

In many instances, they have to make hard choices about staying in school or going to work full time, even at minimum wage, because they have many responsibilities that weigh heavily on them.

The knowledge my students have about economics and personal finance comes from the school of hard knocks. They know how the job market is doing because they are out of work.

They know that unemployment benefits are dwindling because a parent has been cut off and is scrambling for odd jobs. They know that health insurance is prohibitive because they missed class after spending the night in the emergency room with a sick grandparent.

They know the housing market has tanked because they lost their house or cannot afford to think about ever buying one. But they don’t know how to plan prudently with the money they do have.

An overwhelming majority of Americans agree that schools should teach financial literacy. In the study by the Council for Economic Education, 89 percent said so.

It’s time for all of the states to mandate this instruction so that our kids can more skillfully navigate these difficult economic waters that we’re in right now.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams teaches writing at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Conn. She wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.

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