Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Three Reasons to Teach Financial Literacy in Schools

On December 15, 2009, U.S. Department of the Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with students, educators, and community leaders to promote strengthened financial capability among the nation’s youth. They outlined programs to encourage financial education in schools across the country. The need for financial education cannot be overstated. There are at least three compelling reasons to require financial education in schools.

First, it is important to be financially literate before engaging in financial contracts and not after. Yet findings from the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, which surveys high school students, and from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which surveys young adults, show that young Americans lack knowledge of basic concepts of economics and finance. This is worrisome as it means that young people are borrowing without understanding, for example, the power of interest compounding and are choosing their investments, including investment in their own education, without knowing rates of return. Young people face many financial decisions, from how to use credit cards to how to buy a car or start a business. Of course, one of the most important decisions that students face right out of school is how to finance their education—an important investment decision both personally and financially. Also, an early grounding in financial literacy sets the stage for engagement in financial education later in life.

The second reason it is important to teach financial education in schools is that financial knowledge is based on scientific concepts—for example, the law of interest compounding and the concepts of risk and risk diversification—and the groundwork for this sort of conceptual understanding is best laid in a formal educational setting. Financial concepts are not necessarily best learned through experience over time or on the advice of friends, family, and colleagues who are not, themselves, financial experts. Some of the most important financial decisions individuals make are not made repeatedly over time. We do not retire many times or buy many houses. Risk management or rates of return are rarely explained to us in easy-to-understand terms; more likely they are reported in long and complex statements printed in 6-point fonts! And financial experiences can be difficult to decipher without some basic knowledge: For example, what is one supposed to learn from the current economic crisis?

The third reason that financial literacy should be taught in schools is to give everyone the chance to learn it. The surveys from Jump$tart Coalition show that the small groups of students who are deemed to be financially literate are disproportionately white males from college educated families. Similarly, data from the most recent wave of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth show that the young adults (23–28 years old) who are financially literate have college educated mothers and have parents who had stocks and retirement savings when these young adults were teenagers. While this is good news for this limited demographic group, everyone—even those without highly educated and financially sophisticated parents—is faced with financial decisions and we all need the skills to make sound decisions. Some have argued that financial literacy is relevant only if one has wealth. This is a very narrow view. Individuals must make decisions not only about assets but also about debt. And debt is present, even pervasive, across all income strata.

For those of us who believe so much in the value of financial education, seeing Secretary Geithner and Secretary Duncan together on December 15, 2009, was an historical moment. When I look back at 2009, that day—December 15—was one of the best days of a bleak year. For me, it marks the day where we started making progress on an important topic like financial education. I feel better and more optimistic for the new year!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wishes for the New Year

I am back in Hanover after a term where part of every week was spent working in Washington, D.C., and I am looking forward to the new year. The beginning of a new year raises hopes and expectations; we expect the upcoming year to be different from the previous one and for things to be better. Our wishes often do not materialize but I have, nevertheless, three wishes for 2010.

In December, the findings from the new Survey on Financial Capability were released. They paint a troubling picture of the U.S. population both in terms of financial knowledge and financial behavior. As has been documented in other surveys, knowledge of basic concepts of finance and economics is lacking in the population. The majority of people do not understand the workings of inflation, risk diversification, and basic asset pricing. Nevertheless, individuals have to decide how much to save to afford a comfortable retirement and how to allocate their pension wealth. Moreover, and disturbingly, half of the population does not have a buffer stock of savings to shield against unexpected events like job loss or emergencies. This makes both individuals and the economy as a whole more vulnerable to shocks. There are many other findings that I will discuss in more detail in future blogs. (The executive report is available at
My first wish for the New Year is that these findings will provide the stimulus for implementing policies to improve financial literacy and help American families in their financial decision-making.

My second wish for the year is that attention will turn to the groups that need financial literacy the most. One of these groups is women. The Survey on Financial Capability (as well as other surveys) documents that women are lagging behind men in terms of financial knowledge. This is not only the case for older women; it is also true for young women entering the labor market and for high school students. In all of these demographic groups, women are found to be less financially knowledgeable than men. Women are a large and important group. With one in two marriages ending in divorce or separation, women increasingly have to rely on both their earning capacity and their ability to manage resources well to take care of themselves and others. However, very few financial education programs are targeted to women and much more can and should be done to empower women with financial knowledge and financial capability.

My third wish is for financial literacy to be taught in schools. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, financial literacy is an essential piece of knowledge that every student should have. Just as reading and writing became skills that enabled people to succeed in modern economies, today it is impossible to succeed without being able to "read and write" financially—in other words, without financial literacy. Students face formidable financial challenges both during their school years (when they are bombarded with credit card offers) and in the years of young adulthood when they have to make important decisions, including how to finance a college education. My hope is that knowledge and understanding of financial concepts will impact their lives in one particularly important way: the understanding that one of the most important assets they can invest in is their own education.

On a personal level, I will try to stay away from New Year’s resolutions I know I cannot keep, such as shedding these extra pounds (I like eating!), traveling less (the weather and the new security measures are taking care of it), and writing a novel (I am too nerdy for it). But I will continue doing my research and writing my blog. This continues year after year and does not notice the passage of time. It does not even require a special resolution. Happy New Year to all of you!