Financially Illiterate: Schools Not Teaching Personal Finance

Alarmed by the Enron scandal, Jennifer Muzio decided to review the contents of her 401(k) plan. But like so many other Americans who were similarly inspired, her eyes quickly glazed over terms like "average maturity" and "expense ratio."

"To this day I don't have a clue when it comes to personal finance," said the 25-year-old New Yorker. "Why people buy stock, why they sell it, I have no idea. It wasn't something I learned in school."

Muzio remembers a week in elementary school when her class was asked to think of a company they liked, and told to follow the company's stock in the newspaper. But the graduate of New York University never took a course in personal finance or economics — not as a gifted student in New York City's public schools, not at St. Francis Preparatory High School and not as a college undergraduate.

She isn't alone. The Onion, a popular satirical newspaper based in New York City, recently spoofed the nation's financial illiteracy with its faux headline: "Americans Would Be Outraged if They Understood Enron Collapse."

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in a recent speech to the Senate Banking Committee, called Americans particularly "vulnerable to fraud and abuse."

And of the 50 states, only seven currently require students to complete coursework in personal finance, according to the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a public-private partnership that seeks to foster youth financial literacy education.

This doesn't mean personal finance isn't being taught in the other 43 states — 10 more states "require" personal finance in their schools. But laws preclude that requirement from being enforced.

"So many states have local educational authority, meaning each school district can pretty much make its own decisions," said Dara Duguay, executive director of Jump$tart. "So most of the time personal finance and economics are elective courses, and only 12 percent of Americans graduate from high school having learned anything about money at all."

Click here to know more about financial literacy standards nationwide.

Even in states like New York, where economics is a required high school course, students are still at a loss when it comes to personal investments.

Jason Olshan, 17, said the economics course he took last semester "touched on" personal finance. "It was a really good class," Olshan said. But when asked if he could define what a 401(k) is, he said he "probably couldn't."

Click here for a Gail Buckner column explaining how 401(k) accounts work. (scroll down to the second entry in the column)

Starting this fall, New York will hand down a revised economics curriculum containing more personal finance, according to New York State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn. Some New York City schools have already begun participating in personal finance-enriched programs.

But throughout the nation, financial literacy is in the red.

"Many of my clients who are college graduates don't know a thing about personal finance," said Kathy Seitz Watson, a Cleveland-based accountant and financial planner.

"Even my business students don't know the material," said Dr. Allen Martin, a professor of consumer affairs at California State University at Northridge and member of the California chapter of Jump$tart.

So why has personal finance historically been the red-headed stepchild of American education?

Lois Olshan, gifted specialist and arts coordinator at New York City's P.S. 144 (and mother of high school student Jason) said the problem lies in our national definition of "literacy."

"In our zeal to make our students "literate" in reading and math, we drop special programs. 'Literacy' is a euphemism for testing," she said.

Martin feels the issue is more that teachers "don't know the material themselves."

"They are afraid that students will ask questions that they don't have the answers to," he said. "So they steer clear."

Accountant Seitz Watson speculated that in the past, American teachers shied away from personal finance because of the class issues it brought out.

"There's a theory that with the diversity of income levels among students, teachers didn't want to bring the subject up. There's enough peer pressure as it is."

401(k) plans have helped to alleviate this social tension, according to Nebraska Council on Economic Education member Jordan Goodman.

"Joe and Jane Average are making decisions their parents never had to make," Goodman said. "The 401(k) democratized personal finance."

The Internet is also helping to make complicated financial information more accessible to children. Jump$tart's Web site provides advice and games for kids 7-17, as well as a list of other money-for-kids sites. Adults can profit from them, too.

Nevertheless, teachers and business-people alike agree that with credit card offers bombarding teenagers and retirement decisions to make at 22, personal finance is a subject that can no longer be ignored at school.

But national financial literacy won't come overnight.

"You have to get through the bureaucracy of the Boards of Education. It's a long-term struggle," Goodman said.