WNPR

Survey: Most Connecticut High School Students Don't Take Financial Literacy

Oct 18, 2015

As a junior in high school, Michael Beale had a candy business that was pretty successful. But it wasn't exactly a school-sanctioned activity.

"Let's just say it was off the school's books," Beale said, speaking at a recent financial literacy event in East Hartford. Eventually the school shut down his black market sweets operation, but it didn't stop his desire to learn more about personal finance.

"No matter what you do, whether you're a chemist, a historian, or an artist, you're going to need money management skills," Beale said.

Beale, 17, started volunteering for Connecticut JumpStart, a non-profit that's trying to get more schools to offer classes on budgeting, spending, and saving. JumpStart organized the event Beale attended. 

Only a small number of high schoolers currently learn about money in school. A recent JumpStart survey found that nearly four out of five Connecticut high school students will graduate without ever taking a course in basic financial skills.

"If we educate them about personal finance, and teach them, then we're bringing down the delinquency rates and we're increasing the credit scores, so it is having a profound effect," said Christopher Lee, president of Connecticut JumpStart.

But in an age of predatory lending, speculative investments, and rampant consumerism, is there more to personal finance than merely learning how to budget money? Are there more complicated, psychological factors at play?

Beale said there certainly are. "Teenagers are very susceptible to just falling into the trap of buying recklessly almost, and I think that if you could only install one sentence into the mind of teenagers, that's: don't spend more than you earn," he said.

Part of the problem with establishing personal finance classes statewide involves resources. If financial literacy were mandated, schools would likely have to train or hire staff, which could prove expensive, Lee said. Since many programs out there are not required, such as art or music, there's concern by some that jobs could be at stake. 

While 90 percent of public schools in the state offer a personal finance class, the capacity to teach all students is limited by the small number of teachers certified in the course, according to JumpStart.

Earlier this year, the state's treasury department hired Emily Bjornberg as its director of financial education. Part of her job, she said, is to "create a grassroots movement and to cobble together the support that does exist in the state of Connecticut" for financial education programs. 

The position had been vacant for roughly seven years before being filled by Bjornberg, who was appointed to the job after a failed bid for the state Senate last year. 

State lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that requires the education department to develop a financial literacy curriculum, but districts aren't required to implement it. Lee said he hopes schools will voluntarily take advantage of this new curriculum.