Heard Off the Street: Youths want financial literacy on syllabus


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Here's something for educators -- and the elected officials who decide what resources they'll get to do their wonderful work -- to chew on.

For all the adult talk about government living beyond its means, for all the examples of adults behaving badly with their money, the younger generation is trying to tell you something. And it's this: Teach us how to do a better job with our money than you did with yours.

"I think people would be surprised to learn how many students are concerned about financial planning," said Natalie Bonaroti, a senior at Fox Chapel High School.

Ms. Bonaroti was one of a dozen high school and college students who emphasized the importance of teaching financial literacy Friday at a program hosted by Jay Sukits, who teaches finance at Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business.

The session was sparked by the response of Ms. Bonaroti and other students after teachers had them read "The Missing Semester," a 65-page book that teaches high school and college students how to manage a paycheck, save and use credit responsibly. It was written by Gene Natali Jr. of C.S. McKee, a Downtown investment firm, and Matt Kabala, a Hilton Head, S.C., firefighter who manages the department's supplemental retirement plan.

Students who read the book as part of a high school or college class unanimously agreed that financial planning should be part of the standard curriculum. They said that while getting a dose of it in college will help prepare students for the real world, it would be better to provide the education in high school, before students selected a college and indentured themselves to student loan payments.

"You should make financial or economics classes mandatory for high school," said Clare Stem, a senior at Greater Johnstown High School who is headed to Duquesne University this fall.

Margo Lombardi, a senior at Pitt, said high school students take on student loans and sign up for credit cards without understanding the consequences. "This is something that needs to be taught at the high school level," she said.

Don't go thinking these students are the precious few among a generation sometimes accused of adopting instant gratification as a core value. EverFi, a Washington, D.C., company that provides financial literacy education to K-12 students, reports that 83 percent of the 500 high school students it surveyed believe teaching personal finance in schools should be mandatory.

Yet only four states -- Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia -- require at least a semesterlong course on the subject. Less than half of the states require that personal finance education be integrated into other courses. Pennsylvania is not one of them, an EverFi spokeswoman said.

Moreover, 44 percent of the 13- to 18-year-olds surveyed said stress about money at home affects their classroom performance, anxiety that increases as they get older.

While some of the students praised their parents for teaching them sound money habits, including knowing the difference between wanting and needing something, others weren't so lucky.

One student said her mother ran up so much credit card debt that she couldn't get a car loan. Another said her parents' 50th birthdays coincided with them paying off their student loans from medical school. A third said her parents' preferred way of paying off credit card debt was getting another credit card.

Greater Johnstown High teacher Amy Arcurio used the book in two classes with seniors. They told her they wished they had read "The Missing Semester" sooner.

"They really felt cheated out of not getting a class on this," Ms. Arcurio said. "It was the first time someone was able to talk to them about their financial success."

The students said peer pressure can encourage or discourage good financial habits.

Stephanie Brackbill, 24, lives at home and will start studying nursing at Butler County Community College this fall. When she gets together with her friends, "All we talk about is how much we owe and how much we need to save."

But oftentimes students pressure their friends to join them for a movie or some other activity they can't afford.

"I think a lot of people have this mentality that they want to spend their money right away," said Kyle Wiltsey, a senior at Duquesne University.

With nearly half of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, you'd think getting schools to teach personal finance would be a slam dunk. But budget cuts, pressure to prepare students to pass mandated standardized tests, and other factors mean that many high school and college students will enter the real work unable to manage their own paycheck.

There's no doubt that education should start at home, as it did for Kendra Slis, a Greater Johnstown High senior. She said her parents made it clear that "your finances are your responsibility."

The question is: What should we do with students who aren't so fortunate, especially those who are hungry to learn about saving and spending wisely?

"They are not being taught this, and it's not their fault," Amanda Laichak, director of education for Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania, told the panel.

businessnews - bizopinion

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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