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Financial Planning > College Planning > Student Loan Debt

Financial Illiteracy: The Local Solution

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Pershing Advisor Solutions’ CEO Mark Tibergien was an early and vocal proponent of the serious industry need to attract and retain younger advisors to replace departing (and dying) advisors, citing data that since 2008 there are 50,000 fewer professionals in the industry.

That decline is coming as the demand for advice increases in lockstep with the rising number of retired or nearly retired boomers. In an interview for the IA 35 for 35 in May, Tibergien reported that PAS has seen a rise in younger principals at firms, and that larger RIA firms in particular have become “more systematic” in finding new employees. However, he said the broader issue is “whether we’ve conditioned the population to see” the advisory profession as a “good career choice.”

Rather than just preach about this issue, Tibergien has for over 10 years been doing something, and something quite personal, about it. Wondering where he “could make an impact,” he followed the example of Jim Joslin, chairman and CEO of TFC Financial Management in Boston, by funding a financial literacy program at his high school alma mater—Gladstone High School—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Joslin founded a similar program at his Edina, Minnesota high school).

Drily noting that “incrementalism shouldn’t be denigrated,” Tibergien’s long-time funding of a personal economics course for high school seniors may well lead to more recruits for the financial advice business, he hopes, but “at a minimum” will also produce “more informed consumers.”

At the Pershing Insite conference in Orlando in early June, Tibergien and the teacher of that Gladstone High course, Erika Fix, made a TED-like presentation on the program. Tibergien encouraged attendees to make similar investments in their high school alma maters, saying that even a small investment can have a big impact. They suggested advisors start by visiting the #buildfinancialfutures Twitter page (and reading the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy’s “National Report Card on State Efforts to Improve Financial Literacy in High Schools”).

In her presentation and a separate interview, Fix presented the scope of the financial illiteracy problem, and suggested a solution that she and other personal finance teachers can provide.

Teenagers, she said, are the “No. 1 credit target,” payday loan lending “is one of the fastest growing industries in America” and over all, Americans now owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. “The financial world is more complex” today, said Fix, and teenagers live in a world of “mass consumerism.” If they sign up for the credit card solicitations they get, they run a serious risk of falling into a “debt trap.”

But hold on, they’re teenagers, right? Shouldn’t their parents be teaching their children these important skills? First, Fix said, most parents aren’t comfortable talking to their kids about the family’s finances, which is especially true if the parents are poor. Moreover, many adults are far from being financially literate, and that’s the case for even some of the most educated and wealthiest Americans (see “MDs Need More Financial Literacy, Too“). An FDIC report found that 28% of adult Americans are either unbanked or underbanked, and a separate survey found that 40% of adults would give themselves a grade of “C” or lower on their knowledge of finances.

The course Fix teaches is divided into four sections. The first is “Choice,” which encourages students to understand the ramifications of their money choices. She also stresses that “what looks like wealth” may not be “as it appears.” People living in big homes or driving fancy cars, she pointed out, “could be drowning in debt.” On the other hand, frugal people may appear “poorer” on the outside while they’re busy building up wealth on the inside.

The other three sections of the course cover investing, banking and credit, and payroll taxes and insurance. Those students in the class who will be off to higher education are also required to create a budget for their freshman year of college, though students not bound for college also take the course and benefit from it, she said.

Fix uses resources from the Take Charge Institute at the University of Arizona, which has developed a full financial literacy curriculum for grades 1 through 12, and from the Foundation for Teaching Economics.

The results have been impressive, Fix said, relating stories like the student who took her course and achieved her bachelor’s degree with “zero debt.” That student—the first in her family to attend college—is now in graduate school, she said. Another student went to work after graduation and at age 17 was already participating in a 401(k) plan. Other students have helped educate their parents about finances. Perhaps the biggest proof of the program’s success lies in the fact that the number of students requesting the class “has doubled,” Fix reported.

The key—as in much of education—is to attract “some core teachers who really care” about the subject, though Fix said it can be difficult to find teachers who feel comfortable enough about finance to teach it (are you listening, advisors?). And while at Gladstone High the conditions were right to launch the personal finance class—the “right” conditions meaning having a committed teacher and superintendent, and students open to taking the course, plus a person willing to finance the class—those conditions do not exist in every state, much less in every school district.

Grading the States on Financial Literacy (Source: Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy State Report Card)

The need for more financially literate citizens is great, but as seen in the map above, the Champlain College report paints a dim picture of scholastic efforts to meet that need. Only seven states received an “A” grade on their high school financial literacy tests; 11 states, or 22% of the total, received a failing grade.


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