Financial Education In High Schools: A Waste Of Time

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The CU WaterCooler recently featured a DailyFinance article titled It’s Time to Teach Financial Literacy in High School which included the following:

“Seventy [percent] of incoming college freshman told us that they have never been taught basic financial literacy skills. Yet, they are signing up for student loans, opening credit cards and making decisions that will have a serious impact on the rest of their lives.

Why don’t we do more to help our children prepare for a financial world that can be extremely expensive when not understood properly? As a society, we spend a lot of time, money and effort helping prepare our young people for college.

Yet, for some reason, we do not spend a whole lot of time educating potential college students on the less exciting topic of financial literacy, which is the elephant in the corner. More than 90% [of students in a Brooklyn College financial education course] wish that they had more financial training earlier in life, preferably in high school.”

My take: Teaching financial literacy in high school is a waste of time and money.


Imagine that you would like to learn how to play tennis, and that I, an expert tennis player and teacher, agree to give you lessons.

I tell you to meet me at the local Starbucks, and being the really good guy that I am, I buy you a coffee (the cost of which I will more than recoup when you get my bill for the tennis lessons), and we sit down in a couple of adjoining comfy chairs.

I then spend the next hour telling you about the various shots that are used in the game of tennis, and I tell you what you have to do to hit them properly. I might even open up my Macbook, log on to that free SBUX wi-fi, and show you some videos of tennis greats like Borg and McEnroe to show you how it’s done. And let’s say we repeat this SBUX meeting once a week for the next 12 weeks.

At the end of the 12 weeks, do you really think you will have learned to play tennis? Hell no.


And therein lies why teaching financial literacy in high school is a waste of time. Financial literacy requires “on-the-job” training. You can’t learn it in a classroom. Fictional, theoretical situations and decisions simply can not replace–nor simulate–the decisions that need to be made in real-life.

It’s pretty easy to sit in a classroom and say you’re going to give up SBUX 2 days a week in order to save $XXX over the course of a year. Or say you’re going to pay off that credit card bill in order to avoid interest payments and build your credit score. Good luck making those decisions in real-life.


Another reason why high school education is a waste: Because high school students couldn’t care less about financial education.

If a school offered financial education, do you know why a guy would sign up for it? If some girl he’s into signs up for it.

Do you know why girls would sign up for it? I have no idea. I was hoping you could tell me. I have a wife and three daughters and I’ll be damned if I can figure out why they do what they do.

Sure, you can survey the small handful of college students who signed up for a financial education class, and find that they said they would have liked to have received that education in high school. But how representative are they? And would they really have signed up for the class in high school?


You simply can not take someone who isn’t out there earning money, paying bills, and trying to start and raise a family, and expect to teach them what they need to learn about financial management six to eight years before they they need that education.

In 2013, I surveyed US consumers about how their financial lives how changed from pre-recession to recession to post-recession. I asked about their level of financial literacy and how it changed over the years. By generation–splitting Gen Yers into younger (21-26) and older (27-34) subsegments–here are the percentages of consumers that considered themselves to be financially literate in 2013 and in 2010:

          Younger Gen Y     Older Gen Y     Gen X     Boomer     Senior
2010          24%               30%          42%        58%        68%
2013          47%               51%          57%        57%        72%

The Younger Gen Yers did a lot of financial growing up between 2010 and 2013 when they started off in the 18-23 year old range.

Clearly, it would be better if these percentages were higher–across the generations. But I doubt that financial education in the high schools would have had much impact on them. It was being out in the real that provided the real financial education.

The data suggests, however, that there is a group of consumers–in every generation–for whom real-life experience isn’t enough to teach them what they need to know about managing their financial lives. What distinguishes these consumers from others?


My first guess was that household income might be a good predictor of improved financial literacy between 2010 and 2013. But that didn’t pan out.

Improved financial literacy between 2010 and 2013
Young Gen Y (21-26) Less than $30,000 59%
$30,000 to $44,999 71%
$45,000 to $69,999 43%
$70,000 to $99,999 50%
$100,000+ 53%
Old Gen Y (27-35) Less than $30,000 45%
$30,000 to $44,999 48%
$45,000 to $69,999 43%
$70,000 to $99,999 47%
$100,000+ 32%

Among Young Gen Yers, a larger percentage of lower income consumers said their financial literacy improved between 2010 and 2013. Among Older Gen Yers, the percentage that said their level of literacy improved was fairly consistent across income brackets. Surprisingly (to me, at least), I didn’t find significant differences by level of education, either.


I thought maybe the use of online personal financial management tools (e.g., Mint) would predict the difference between those whose literacy levels improved and those who didn’t. Sadly, it didn’t. Neither did the use of financial self-help books or watching/listening to financial shows like Suze Orman.

The one factor that I did find to help explain the difference? Turning to a bank or credit union for help in managing their financial lives. Across each of the generations–all five of them–a significantly larger percentage of consumers who got help from their bank or credit union increased their level of financial literacy than consumers who didn’t.


Improving financial literacy (across all consumer segments, not just the younger ones) is certainly on the radar of some FIs. An early peek into the 2015 Financial Brand Marketing survey shows that about one in four FIs plans to make financial education one of the areas that they will heavily market in 2015 (I don’t have a bank/credit union split on that just yet).

But if the focus of these financial education efforts is going to be heading out to high schools to get a bunch of 16 year-olds up to speed on how to manage their financial lives when they hit their mid-2os, I’m betting those efforts are going to be nothing but a big waste of time. And money.


The health care system has made one notable change over the past 20-30 years that the financial services industry needs to emulate: A focus on outcomes.

The focus, in financial services, should be on financial health, not literacy or education. Being financially literate is like learning how to play tennis while sitting in Starbucks. You can pass a test, but it doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. And education may very well be what’s required to become literate, and achieve financial health–but without a measure of health, there’s no way to tell if the education was effective. 


The CFSI gets this. In an article titled The Future Is Financial Health, CFSI CEO Jennifer Tescher wr0te:

“We need to redefine financial services from the pursuit of wealth to the pursuit of health.”

I disagree a bit with this. “Financial services” is a broad category, and there are segments of the industry (brokerages, asset management, wealth management) where the pursuit of wealth is the correct focus.

But for retail banks–who need to regain trust, develop products that appeal to financially-educated young consumers, and find new, more profitable business models–Jennifer’s comment may very well be spot-on.


CFSI is spot on about something else, as well:

“Financial health is not a purely subjective matter. We have begun to identify key indicator variables, including both subjective and objective measurements. Over time, we will learn how factors like debt levels, savings, access to planning tools, and self-assessments of financial health fit together and how financial services innovation can bolster financial health.”

What’s needed is a FinScore. What CFSI is planning to do may very well become that score.


Bottom line: I realize that financial education is one of those “motherhood and apple pie” subjects. How dare anyone bad mouth financial education! But spending time and money on financial education for high school students is a waste of that time and money. That time and money is better spent elsewhere–specifically, on people already out of school.

p.s. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the title of the Daily Finance article grammatically incorrect? You don’t “teach” literacy, do you? Literacy is a result, or outcome of teaching, not what is being taught.

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