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Courses that teach high schoolers about money are few and far between

Students in a finance course at Waipahu High School are spending their lunch break a few days each week setting up accounts and taking deposits at an on-campus HawaiiUSA Federal Credit Union office. Customers are other teens and school staffers.

Through the banking operation, a school-business partnership in place two dozen years now, “students get to practice what they learn as well promote savings to their peers,” said Brent Murakami, who teaches the elective. Among the students ready to offer advice on the merits of personal savings and financial literacy are Adam Lake and Christine Alonzo, both seniors.

Both say the school’s business electives are prepping them for matters they’re sure to face after graduation.

“Having these classes helps us understand the importance of money,” Lake said. “I didn’t know how much it was to go to college. Now, knowing that and being able to budget my money … that’s going to allow me and other students here to understand how to afford to go to college without being in debt.”

Alonzo, who also holds down a weekend job as a credit union concierge at an off-campus office, added that the school’s “business pathway” has helped her “pick the right colleges” based, in part, on affordability. “It’s important to know how much college costs. Because we’ll need to pay it off (if loans are in the picture), we can figure out ourselves how to do that.”

Lessons in money management are useful, especially in a state where high school grads face daunting cost-of-living issues, not to mention the nationwide rising price tag for a college education.

Hawaii’s public school system has no written policy regarding financial literacy. Rather, the decision to fold it into instruction rests with individual schools. “This is in line with an emphasis on student voice as part of individual school design,” said Monica Mann, director of the Instructional Support Branch under the state Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design.

“Schools are encouraged to make curricular decisions that best meet the needs of their school communities,” Mann said. Because the state Department of Education “wants to continue to provide maximum flexibility and choice, there currently are no plans to change this practice.”

Still, financial literacy advocates make a case that Hawaii and other states with similar practices should include requiring personal finance proficiency as a graduation requirement.

The “National Report Card” on state efforts to improve financial literacy in high schools, prepared by Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy, contends that regardless of when a young person’s formal education ends, they will be thrust into situations where they need to know how to manage daily living expenses. So, high school seems the most logical place to deliver personal finance education.

Hawaii among ‘F’’ states

In the latest report card, issued in late 2017, Hawaii was among 10 states that received an “F,” flunking for offering “few requirements or none at all for personal finance education in high school.”

Five states got an “A” for their efforts. And Utah — the sole state tagged as worthy of an “A+” — was commended for requiring that all high school students take a half-year course exclusively dedicated to personal finance topics, as well as an end-of-course assessment exam created and administered by the state.

Further, in Utah — where general financial literacy is a funded mandate — educators teaching the course must obtain a specific endorsement in general financial literacy that includes coursework on financial planning; credit and investing; and consumer, personal and family economics. The state also provides educators with resources and professional development opportunities.

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