As the economy sputters its way back from the worst crisis since the Great Depression, local schools and lawmakers are trying to make financial literacy a larger part of students’ education.
Many districts already offer the subject as an elective course or seminar, but efforts are under way to train all students in money management.
“A college freshman has an average debt of $1,500,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “Part of it is not having enough financial education in high school to prepare them for the real world.”
Eldridge is a sponsor of one of several bills in the Legislature right now that would make personal financial literacy a curriculum requirement for all schools in the state. The unit would teach students about balancing a checkbook, borrowing money, investing and planning for retirement, among other banking-related topics.
“It would also highlight some of the practices some of the more unscrupulous credit companies and lenders use … to get college students to spend beyond their means,” Eldridge said.
Several local school leaders also want their financial education offerings to do more for more of their students. Ashland High School, for example, offers a financial seminar to seniors as well as an online economics elective class, but Catherine Stickney, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, said they aren’t enough.
“In my opinion, it should be more than that,” she said. “We know the need is to expand that into a course.”
Much of the heightened interest in financial literacy comes from the recession, which exposed how much of the economic and financial systems Americans don’t fully understand. Many districts now want to restore training that was dropped during education reform in the early 1990s, said Albert Mercado, a guidance, career and academic supervisor at Milford High School.
“Many of those classes were wiped away because they weren’t seen as college-readiness courses,” he said. “But we saw the financial chaos that happened. We were hearing stories of students going off to college not understanding the value of a dollar and getting into trouble.”
Milford High offers an elective in financial literacy, but only about 24 students can take it each semester, Mercado said. The unit will be expanded to become a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2013.
Natick High Assistant Superintendent Karen LeDuc said she doesn’t envision Natick taking a similar step, but their schools do plan to take a personal finances elective online to open it up to more students.
“I don’t think it will ever become a requirement of graduation,” she said. “I just think it’s a good tool to have.”
Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who sponsored her own financial literacy bill, said she doesn’t expect the course to become mandatory for graduation. She said her legislation is geared to find ways to work financial training into math curriculum, so school staff isn’t burdened with new tasks.
“Many schools already do something like this,” she said. “This is an effort to make it consistent across the state.”
Several similar bills are circulating on Beacon Hill, and State Treasurer Steve Grossman is working to reach a consensus on a single piece of legislation, Spilka said. After coming close in past years, Eldridge said he thinks the effort may see a breakthrough this year.
“I think it has an excellent chance,” he said. “I feel confident we can pass it this session.”
Stickney said she’ll be watching to see what the Legislature does. While she supports expanded financial literacy education, she said school leaders in Ashland are waiting for guidance from the state as they get ready to get the district’s curriculum lined up with the recently adopted Common Core State Standards.
“We’re definitely looking forward to that,” she said. “Students going to college are going into debt trying to pursue their dreams. I think wholeheartedly that’s a piece we need to provide for them.”