Financial Literacy: The M in STEM
“We teach our children to wear seat belts. Schools invest in programs aimed at helping kids practice smart internet habits. But few are talking about the dangers of too much debt or the blessing that is compound interest.”
– Greg Iacurci for InvestmentNews (2019)
State of Texas Representative Vikki Goodwin (District 47, Travis County), filed House Bill 1182 in 2019. The Bill required a personal financial literacy course for high school students. Vikki remarked:
“I filed this so that we can ensure young adults are getting out of high school with an idea of how to handle their personal finances. I have kids of my own who are young adults, who are on their own now and have had to learn how to budget, and of course as a realtor I’ve come across a lot of young adults who are trying to buy a home or lease a home and who just don’t know a whole lot about finances, interest rates, credit, credit cards, and credit scores.”
Some educators fear high school students have a lot of requirements already, and this would involve a new requirement. But Vikki emphasized, “We’re trying to make it as flexible as possible. It could either take the place of an elective, or we’re also looking into having it take the place of one semester of math or maybe one semester of economics.” (Texas Standard)
Goodwin’s measure passed in the Texas House of Representatives, but then died shortly thereafter in the Senate. It is my personal hope the bill will be reintroduced and passed in the future.
When it comes to being financially literate, Americans fall short globally.
“Although the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, the Standard & Poor’s Global Financial Literacy Survey ranks it No. 14 (tied with Switzerland) when measuring the proportion of adults in the country who are financially literate. To put that into perspective: the U.S. adult financial literacy level, at 57%, is only slightly higher than that of Botswana, whose economy is 1,127% smaller.” Greg Iacurci for InvestmentNews (2019)
How do we go about solving this issue and putting America back at the top of the list?
Last fall, I had the good fortune to meet Maura Cunningham, founder of Rock The Street, Wall Street, a new financial literacy nonprofit based in Nashville, Tennessee that is expanding across the United States. With a focus on young high school age women, Rock The Street is unique. It departs from traditional, passive classroom learning models by engaging volunteer female financial professionals as teachers and mentors. This “real life” program dovetails seamlessly with the normal fall and spring semesters of the school year.
Using an open source curriculum, Rock The Street professionals both teach and mentor. Field trips to financial institutions are part of the mix. Rock The Street has developed an extensive national network of financial service companies eager to provide leadership support, both in terms of funding and female financial professionals who can be tapped to help lead classes and to serve as mentors.
The statistics for this startup (launched in 2013) are impressive. Rock The Street, Wall Street served 2,325 young high school age women last year. Its alumnae demonstrate a 92% increase in financial literacy and they are four times more likely to pursue degrees in finance, economics or related fields than the national average. In terms of Texas, Rock The Street has been offered in two schools in the Fort Worth area. We hope to see it expand statewide in the months and years ahead.
The sad truth is, without financial security women are more prone to domestic violence, they have fewer job opportunities and reduced income. And, 41% of families with children under age 18 include mothers who are the sole or primary source of income for the family. The likelihood that future mothers will also be the sole family breadwinner means the existing gender wage gap and savings gap will have a negative impact on generations to come.
Our high school years are a critical time of life. This is when self confidence and self esteem are strengthened and future career choices are made. Unfortunately, comprehension of basic financial principles today is staggeringly low: only 27% of young adults know basic financial concepts such as interest rates, inflation, and risk diversification.
Oxford Learning notes, “Some students dislike math because they think it’s dull. They don’t get excited about numbers and formulas the way they get excited about history, science, languages, or other subjects that are easier to personally connect to. They see math as abstract and irrelevant figures that are difficult to understand.” Oxford suggests making math “real” to students by showing how the M in STEM relates to everyday life.
What better way to engage young women in high school than with female financial professionals actually working in the field!
“In the U.S., we start to lose girls in math at age nine. As they age, girls report significantly lower confidence in math, despite earning equal scores to boys. 80% of teachers self report that they are not competent teaching financial literacy. With girls falling out of math at such an early age and teachers reporting that they are not qualified to teach financial literacy, it’s no wonder two out of three women state they know little to nothing about finance or financial products.” (Rock The Street, Wall Street)
I am heartened to see a growing number of support organizations and startup underwriters focusing on women today. Particularly exciting is Melinda Gates’ recent financial commitment to promoting gender equality and expanding women’s power and influence across the United States. Thanks go to them all, including educational innovators like Maura Cunningham and Rock The Street, Wall Street!
Photographs illustrating this article are courtesy of Adobe Spark.