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The Importance of Financial Literacy — Preparing Our Students for Life After High School

In my last blog, I discussed how D.C. Everest District utilizes an innovative model — called “Redefining Ready!” — to ensure all our students are prepared for post-secondary education, a career and life after high school.

I’ve sometimes encountered parents and students who wonder — why is Financial Literacy a requirement at DCE? Well, a few years ago we realized our high school students did not feel prepared to manage their own finances after graduation. They often felt overwhelmed about a skill that can play a critical role in their life. So a few years ago, our District made it mandatory for all high school students to take a ½-credit Financial Literacy course and provided them with a number of options to choose from so they could select an option best suited to them: Finance, Consumer Education, Financial Algebra, Advanced Placement Macro Economics or Personal Finance and Economics. 

Each of these courses integrates STEAM skills into the curriculum — students are challenged to think critically and creatively, solve real world problems, collaborate and communicate. One of the best examples is the Financial Reality Fair, hosted by DCE and CoVantage Credit Union, which students enrolled in Finance and Consumer education classes participate in. The event is, quite frankly, genius. It’s a role-playing event that challenges students to manage their personal finances and create a monthly budget. We don’t make the Fair “easy” for them because we want them to appreciate the variability of life and the challenges it can throw your way. Basically, students assume the role of someone in their late 20s or early 30s — an exciting, if not challenging, time in life when you’ve completed post-secondary education or have moved beyond entry-level job positions and are trying to establish a career and family. To ensure the students don’t simply pick a high-earning career and impressive credit score, they are randomly assigned both. And then a number of other life variables are randomly assigned via a game of Plinko — marital status, salary, employment status of spouse/partner, children, credit card debt, student loans and taxes.

With all of that in place, the fun begins. Students spend about an hour visiting each booth at the Financial Reality Fair (which are kindly staffed by volunteers from local businesses) where they are faced with personal finance decisions. Should they rent an apartment or purchase a home? Can they afford the utilities assigned to their choice? Can they afford a car or will they need to rely on public transportation? They’d love a dog, but will their finances allow for it? And what about the costs of childcare, groceries, entertainment and a cell phone?

Admittedly, it’s entertaining to watch the students — you see pride when they’ve budgeted for all their lifestyle needs and wide-eyed concern when they realize they’re in the red. I’ve seen students complete the exercise and being walking to the accounting table only to realize that they are hundreds of dollars over their budget. Reality hits. And yet, each time, they take a deep breath, perhaps they turn to a friend for ideas and they solve the problem at hand. Lesson learned.

Beyond balancing their budget, Mr. Hanke and the members of CoVantage Credit Union have integrated several other critical lessons into the Financial Reality Fair: the impact a charitable donation can have on your community, the importance of having a savings account and the odd ups and downs of life that can send a windfall or unexpected cost your way. Each student is required to establish a savings account and choose a charity of their choice. And they each have to spin the “Stuff Happens” wheel — where, for example, they may be fined by the IRS or win money for a vacation.

Finally, Susan Landwehr and Lindsey Dick, both from CoVantage, and our Business Ed teacher Mr. Hanke have integrated a crucial lesson into our Financial Reality Fair that makes it unique — the credit score. Every student quickly learns how their credit score influences their life — determining whether they can purchase or rent a home, the size and amenities of their residence, what vehicle they will drive, even whether or not they can obtain a cell phone.

As parents, all of us should be grateful to them for their innovative thinking. Hopefully, the lessons our students learn in an exercise such as this will help them avoid costly mistakes in the real world.

DCE Senior High students reviewing their monthly budgets at the Financial Literacy Fair. Students had to balance household expenses, entertainment, family costs and the "surprise" costs.

Dr. Kristine Gilmore
kgilmore@dce.k12.wi.us
715-359-4221