New courses giving high school students a financial edge

The grades Abby Florian received in her history, math and English classes may have guaranteed her a seat at the colleges she applied to, but it’s the financial literacy course she took that ensured she could afford to go to an out-of-state school and not leave weighted down with debt.


tudent Abby Florian: ‘I know to save and pay my bills first, and spend last’

“I was just shocked at the costs. It was an eye opener,” said the senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, who started directly depositing her paychecks from her part-time job at a clothing warehouse shortly after the class started. She also learned which type of student loans and credit cards to avoid because of the high interest rates and where to find free scholarship and grant money.

“This class is a lifeline for my students. They will be adults soon and many have no idea how to manage their finances,” said Barbara Angelicola-Manzolli, the teacher of one of the courses and a former business executive at The New York Times.

Most high school seniors fail a basic financial literacy test, according to surveys administered by JumpStart, a national advocacy group, between 1998 and 2008.

These low test scores and the recession highlighting the importance of money management for many students with unemployed parents has led to a wave of states mandating personal finance instruction, says Daniel Hebert, the Northeast director for JumpStart.

“There’s nothing like a recession to bring financial literacy to the forefront,” he said.

Twenty-five states mandate personal finance instruction be incorporated into the required courses and four states go one step further by requiring high school students take at least one-semester course devoted to personal finance.

Connecticut requires neither.

Instead, the state has taken the approach of providing the start-up costs to any high school that begins offering a personal finance course. Before the grant, just 45 percent of the high schools in the state offered this course. Now 80 percent of high schools offer the courses and 10 districts require it for graduation.

“There’s not too many high schools out there that don’t have this course now,” said Lee Marcoux, who consults with districts on these courses for the State Department of Education. “My goal is for every school to have a personal finance course.”

But the $1.5 million in funding the SDE received to bankroll this initiative is almost gone and 46 high schools remain with no personal finance course.

“Hopefully we get there,” Marcoux said.

Manzolli said the seed money is what made this course a reality at her school.

“Finding money for new programs is difficult these days for districts,” said Manzolli. “Our principal was supportive, we just needed the money to get it going.” The $25,000 grant her school received went to purchase computer software, books, a smart board and training for herself and one other teacher.

An upcoming state graduation requirement could help push these remaining districts to begin offering this course by 2020. In the state’s Race to the Top application they required students complete two elective courses in “career and life skills”, which could include personal finance.

Manzolli said she expects these personal finance courses to be in high demand.

“These courses fill up fast here. I bet if we offered another two courses they would fill up right away,” she said. “It’s absolutely essential for every high school to offer this class.”

For Florian, this class has meant when she goes off to college next year–probably in Idaho–she will be borrowing as little as possible and knowing how to balance her bills.

“I know to save and pay my bills first, and spend last,” she said.