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Financial Planning > College Planning

How to Increase Financial Literacy? Start Young, Train Teachers

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Ever wonder why so many college students choose to attend private schools costing tens of thousands of dollars a year when the only way they can do that is by taking out tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of loans?

Some blame the availability of debt to finance higher education; others cite the rising cost of college tuition and fees. But at the root is a lack of financial literacy among students and their families that would provide an understanding of the long-term implications of having so much debt, including the number of years needed for repayment and the fact that student loans can never be forgiven as other debt can under bankruptcy protection.

“Decisions about paying for higher education can have lasting impact on individuals and our economy,” according to the latest “Homeroom” blog from the U.S. Department of Education noting that “April is National Financial Capability Month.”

“Financial literacy … has a critical impact on students’ ability to make smart choices about which institute of higher education to attend, what to study, how to pay for college, and how to manage student loan debt after graduation,” notes the blog.

The Department of Education is working with the Treasury’s Financial Literacy and Education Commission to teach postsecondary students about how to save and manage money for their college education, but that may be too late for the many who will already be deep in debt.

“Schools can and should take on” the shared responsibility of financial education, along with parents and guardians, “starting in the early grades,” according to PwC’s report “Bridging the Financial Literacy Gap: Empowering Teachers to Support the Next Generation,” released Monday. 

Ninety-two percent of K-12 teachers believe financial education should be taught in schools and 67% believe financial education should start in elementary school, the report found.

But just 21% of teachers indicated that their school or district offers financial education to students. Many “teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching financial education,” the report explains.

Less than one-third of teachers feel “completely comfortable” teaching financial education, and just 12% of incorporate financial education into their classroom lessons, the report notes.

Teachers want more support from curriculum materials and professional development as well as materials for students to take home and share with their parents, according to the report.

Sixty-two pecent feel financial education isn’t “a critical skill for college and career readiness,” which suggests that teachers themselves need to be educated about financial literacy. That percentage is a “real concern,” says Jeff Senne,  who leads corporate responsibility strategy and implementation at PwC. 

There is hope, however. The report notes that “millennials are champions of financial education and better at seeking funds” for that purpose than their experienced colleagues because they tend to be more tech-savvy.

They’ve also learned from their own experiences.  “Millennials see the value of financial education because they experienced the biggest economic recession since the Great Depression,” according to the report, which is based on a national online survey of teachers, guidance counselors and principals in elementary and secondary schools as well as sample surveys in several states and large metro areas.

“They are also struggling with multiple sources of loans and debt as they try to establish their careers and place in society as adults.”

The PwC report concludes that “we must push for systemic support of financial education … starting in elementary school.” Teachers need “high-quality financial education materials [and] professional development and training for financial education” so that they “feel as comfortable teaching personal finance as they do reading, writing or math.”

But unlike the three Rs, financial education has a behavioral dimension, says Senne. “That’s what makes it so hard.”

In addition to teaching financial education in school, and including it in curricula, financial education needs to be learned at home, getting “tools into the hands of parents,” says Senne.

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