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Fostering Financial Literacy through Education

Joanne S. Barry, CAE

A recent stream of surveys and studies from credible government, industry, and nonprofit groups all reported the same message about Americans' level of money wisdom and basic financial literacy: it is not good and getting worse. For example, in the 2013 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey, conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association, 40% of adults gave themselves a grade of C, D, or F on their knowledge of personal finance. Considering that 33% of survey respondents said that they learned about financial planning from their parents or at home, policymakers and educators seem to understand that there is a clear need for a personal financial planning curriculum to be implemented in every public school.

The Top of the Class

Education requirements are set at the state and local level, and some states have been quicker than others to address the issue. New York hasn't ignored the problem; in fact, the state's efforts to increase the financial literacy of its primary and secondary school students led to the state receiving a grade of B in Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy National Report Card on State Efforts to Improve Financial Literacy in High Schools. What differentiates the A states from the B ones? The A states, such as Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Utah, require a stand-alone personal finance course as a graduation requirement. New York and other B states include personal finance topics in their K–12 instructional guidelines and require local school districts to implement these standards; these states also require financial literacy instruction in order for students to graduate from high school.

New York also incorporates personal finance topics into a required high school course, which covers economics and freeenterprise topics, according to the report. But in order to move New York to the top of the class, a coalition of private, public, and nonprofit entities needs to undertake a centralized, concerted effort to introduce a K-12 financial literacy curriculum into New York's public schools and include this curriculum in New York State's common core learning standards.

Financial illiteracy is a problem Americans can't afford to ignore. Future generations will increasingly be at a further disadvantage unless we are committed to improvement. How will our children understand basic personal finance if their parents and teachers do not? The first step in addressing this problem is to educate the educators. Some nonprofits are working within New York's current educational requirements to do just that. A pilot program developed jointly by Columbia University's Teachers College and Working in Support of Education (WISE), a New York City–based educational non-profit, combines intensive professional development for high school teachers with lessons that can be easily integrated into history and economics classes; the aim is to work with other organizations in developing national financial literacy programs.

Understanding that financial literacy has broader implications outside the household, Teachers College has also developed a curriculum that aids teachers in helping their students understand the role that finance plays in the creation of sound public policies, and how those policies affect them—not only as individuals, but also society as a whole.

Making a Commitment

Anand R. Marri, an associate professor of social studies and education at Teachers College and also a principal investigator for the initiative Understanding Fiscal Responsibility, said, “Students who have not yet been responsible for their own expenses find issues of the government's budget, debt, and deficit far removed. And yet it is their generation, the generation on the cusp of becoming new voters, that will be most impacted by the budgetary decisions we make today” (http://teachufr.org/about/).

The urgency in Marri's message is not understated; the NYSSCPA is looking to establish a coalition with public and private groups in order to work with the State Education Department in implementing a K–12 personal finance curriculum into New York State's common core learning standards. Our approach is twofold: along with an interest in establishing strategic partnerships with these organizations, we are currently readying a targeted statewide program that focuses on providing additional outreach activities in all of the Society's 15 chapters. Who better to educate the educators on personal finance than an organization of 29,000 CPAs? Our goal is to provide up to 1,000 volunteer hours of in-kind service and programs focused on teaching children and young adults monetary concepts and skills by the fall of 2014.

There is hope for our younger generations drowning in credit card and student loan debt. All that is needed is the commitment from policymakers and financial experts who have the power and the tools to implement change.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. Publisher.

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