The figures outside Abbie Weipert’s classroom are alarming. Presidential hopefuls point to $1.6 trillion in student debt. A U.S. Federal Reserve report says a quarter of American adults have no retirement savings.
But in Weipert’s personal finance course at Iowa City West High, lawmakers and educators across the state see something of a remedy.
Starting next academic year, high schools across the state will be required to offer a semester-long personal finance course, something Iowa City Community schools have done for decades.
With some tweaks, Weipert’s personal finance trimester elective at West High will become the required course next year.
Typically Weipert starts the trimester asking students what financial decisions they are anticipating and uses that feedback as a starting point. As part of new state requirements, she expects she’ll have to move more quickly to get through a laundry list of topics — from emergency fund savings to types of insurance to balloon mortgages.
Because there are more state-required topics than can reasonably fit into a trimester, some of the topics will be moved into a general economics course instead, to meet the mandate.
The requirements mean giving up some of her flexibility. In past years, Weipert might have noted a decline in Millenials owning houses and a lack of interest among students and focused her teaching time away from home ownership.
Still, Weipert is a staunch supporter of the requirement and is advocating for the school district to offer an additional personal finance course through Kirkwood Community College. She wishes the course had been required when she was a teenager.
“I went to West High many years ago, and I didn’t know enough to take it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was important. But the reality is that we graduate at 18, and we’re very quickly making serious financial decisions, the student debt we are about to take on, the apartment leases we are about to take on.”
Weipert, who is also an adjunct professor at Kirkwood, said the college credit course would go into deeper depth on the subject and require a capstone project from students.
The course has stayed on Kirkwood’s catalog for years, says Jon Weih, director of the Kirkwood Regional Center. The course aims to give students the knowledge and skills needed to manage money at a crucial time.
“I remember when the credit card company would set up at Kirkwood and sign you up for a bag of Skittles,” he said. “Boom you are 18 years old with a credit card in your hand.”
Teachers are also learning more about personal finance
Weih estimates that money management skills will impact a student far more than study skills over the course of their life. Though he and others who study education in the state point out that a person’s understanding of personal finance topics like mortgages often comes down to one factor.
“It depends on whether or not your parents have that knowledge,” said Jamaal Young, an associate professor at the University of Iowa who lectures pre-service teachers.
Young integrates personal finance subjects into his collegiate classes. He theorizes that a more effective way to teach personal finance would be to start earlier in K-12 student’s schooling and scale up the subject matter as students gets older.
But to educate students on personal finance, Young said there must be an accompanying effort to educate teachers on personal finance.
“In my opinion, we need to start earlier,” he said. “Unfortunately most of our K-12 teachers do not have this knowledge.”
In recent years Iowa City Community schools have launched a financial literacy campaign for teachers insured through the district’s insurance plan. The campaign is the brainchild of a “wellness committee,” which helps come up with wellness initiatives that impact employee’s health.
“That came from a need,” Weipert said. “They didn’t just do that out of the goodness of their heart. …There’s clearly a need even for teachers to know more about their finances.”
Day one of Weipert’s personal finance course starts with a caveat to that effect: “I tell kids I’m not perfect with my money.” She shows them her credit scores over the year as an example of what it takes to dig yourself out of debt.
She doesn’t think her students will be perfect with money after her course, but she’s hopeful they will leave with some insight and some of the financial skills needed to address the financial burdens they come across after graduation.
“If we can come at young people from many angles, whether it’s their school, their banking institutions, financial aid councilors on their campus or their parents,” she said. “I think we can help alleviate some of those financial crises we are always hearing about.”