My Son Will Probably Not Take A High School Personal Finance Course. Here’s Why.

Yes, I harp on it all the time: The first step towards being prepared for retirement is having a core competency in financial literacy so as to avoid falling into debt, be able to accumulate savings and know how to invest to translate that money into assets for the future. And, indeed, my son’s high school requires a “consumer education” course for graduation (and indeed the state requires the same for a duration of at least 9 weeks and 50 minutes per day), which students most commonly meet by taking the course that the school offers in personal finance.

It’s a fine enough course: It covers budgeting, banking, insurance, taxes, credit cards and, while not a career-planning course, addresses likely earnings potential and the impact that has. From all reports, it’s an easy A, and my older son took the summer school version with no apparent impairment of his summertime fun. But my middle son is a camp counselor during the summer. And during the school year he’s got a full load of college-prep and worthy elective courses: English, math, science, social studies/history, band and a four-year set of engineering/tech electives fill up all six available blocks. Sure, he could drop the fourth year of math or science, or skip band, and, we’re told, many students pair the half-year Personal Finance class with a half-semester art class to meet that half-year requirement, but he’s got that covered already with band.

And the likely solution for my son? The “consumer education” requirement is defined loosely enough that he will be able to take AP Macro and Micro Economics and kill two birds with one stone.

Now, not all high schools are the same, but the fixed pattern of equal-length blocks or periods is nearly universal, as is the expectation of four years each of each core class and, for more selective colleges, a foreign language (though, to be sure, strictly speaking, this is merely “recommended”), with fine arts such as band or orchestra strongly encouraged as well. How does the more ambitious student (or even a student taking advantage of the programs offered in career fields such as culinary, IT, or medical) schedule in an additional elective?

What’s more, experts in the field of financial literacy recommend not a single course but a progressive curriculum with lessons that build on what’s been learned each prior year, culminating in a final capstone course, and the State of Illinois’ standards take this approach, with new content and expectations for each grade — until high school, when a single set of standards exists for the entire high school curriculum. How is that possible in the context of equal-length curriculum blocks?

Here’s another observation: In addition to the Personal Finance class offered to its students, the high school district (because in my neck of the woods high school districts and elementary/middle school districts are two separate governmental bodies) offers community education classes, and among these are one-night sessions on personal finance-related topics, for example, an investing overview, how to save for retirement, or first-time homebuyer or seller guidance, or suchlike. It’s not a standardized or planned curriculum, though, merely the result of various professionals in the community offering topics they wish to teach. And this, too, points to a limitation in how personal finance is taught, that the financial knowledge and understanding needed evolves over one’s lifetime, both as one ages, and as the financial world changes. It’s clear that high school students will need to understand basic skills in banking, loans (including the consequences of student loans) and everyday financial activities. But would a high school finance curriculum from a decade ago have educated students in target-date-type retirement funds? (Hint: These funds only became prevalent in the years following the 2006 Pension Protection Act.) Would students retain the information in a unit on homebuying, up to the point at which they need to put this information to use?

In contrast, colleges have the freedom to run their programs flexibly. Indiana University, for example, has a program called MoneySmarts, in which students can take a set of three one-credit courses all in one semester, or one at a time when it fits their schedule, or they can read articles online, listen to podcasts or meet with peer educators. Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Madison features for-credit classes, workshops and individual consultations in its Badger$ense Financial Life Skills program.

But not everyone attends college, and even for those who do, the knowledge gained through those programs isn’t enough to last a lifetime. (Here’s another example: A financial education component of US Army boot camp produced long-lasting increases is retirement savings rates, but other hoped-for outcomes, such as reduced credit card debt, only appeared in the short term and did not last.) What we really need is more financial education delivered outside of the school day, and after graduation, in the wider community, through a structured rather than haphazard program—paired with a norm that learning doesn’t stop when a diploma or degree is awarded. It might be through the school district or through other community organizations. After all, various evangelical churches sponsor Dave Ramsey Financial Peace courses, though they are focused on debt-avoidance.

So how do we get from here to there?

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