A former student in my financial literacy class approached me at the local public library. I remembered he had considered my class a “dumb” elective, something mindless to fill a gap in his class schedule. The young man had moved to Chicago after graduation, and he had made some mistakes there that forced him to move back home to Maryland. He told me he was getting his life back in order using the information he learned from a project we did in my class in which students took hypothetical salaries and figured out how to balance priorities — rent, groceries, bills and saving.
This chance encounter was a powerful reminder that personal finance education matters for every student, not just the eager students with their hands up in class! Where might this young man be today without the financial foundation we started in that “dumb” elective class? Where would he be if I hadn’t found a way to engage him with the material?
Unfortunately, personal finance remains underappreciated in Maryland. Our state has a curriculum in personal finance that must be offered in grades K-12 but, sadly, it is often ignored. School districts ultimately determine its importance, so often it’s up to teachers, parents, students, and local community members to lobby principals or boards of education to make this course a reality.
I have taught financial literacy for 25 years as an elective course. It’s not enough. For decades, counselors at my school have filled my classroom with students with “holes” in their schedules.
Unfazed by this casual approach, I promised each student that they would use everything I taught them every day for the rest of their lives. I worked hard to engage students and help them develop real world financial skills. Nearly every student evaluation over my career stated that financial literacy was the best class they had taken in high school.
For years I have pitched making my financial literacy course a graduation requirement, and I have been told that a high school course requirement wasn’t enough, that financial education was needed in every grade, but that was just too much to ask of K-12 teachers.
Detractors brandished a 2014 study showing that financial behaviors were unaffected by taking a personal finance course, but that study was found to be faulty. A more robust, peer reviewed research study in 2017 showed personal finance learning leads to higher credit scores, lower delinquency rates, smarter student loan decision-making, and avoidance of predatory lenders, which adds up to significant economic benefits to districts, counties and states.
I have been told that students learn these skills at home, not at school. Really? A 2019 study shows 72% of parents are not talking to their kids about money, and 82% of those parents cite fear as the barrier keeping them from doing so.
I’m proud that in 2020, we broke through all these objections to make personal finance a graduation requirement in Prince George’s County. We did it with educators and students making a strong case before the county Board of Education. In fact, it was a former student, Joshua Omolola, a student member of the education board, who worked with me and two other board members to draft the graduation requirement proposal. Joshua enlisted the leaders of the Student Government Association from each high school to speak before the board. A student of mine and I also testified, as did our Parent-Teachers Association president.
It worked! Graduating students in the class of 2024 in every high school in Prince George’s County Public Schools will be the first to have the course required on their transcripts.
This monumental change happened because we worked with the decision-makers to achieve our goal. Each school system in Maryland has its own way of creating graduation requirements, so financial education advocates must identify the local decision makers and work with them. That decision maker may be a principal, a school board member, a PTA group or local business association.
One semester of financial education may not be the “silver bullet” answer to all the financial problems in the world, but if taught properly, it provides students with the tools to make strong financial decisions, find reliable financial information when they have questions, and level the playing field in an increasingly unequal world. If you agree that financial education can play a role in shaping a better economic future in Maryland, I urge you to dig into your county’s graduation requirements and go to work.
Susan Bistransin, a personal finance teacher at Parkdale High School for 25 years, is now Personal Finance and Empowerment Coordinator for Prince George’s County Public Schools. She can be reached at email@example.com.