Make personal finance course a high school graduation requirement

After I argued in a recent column why all K-12 students should learn algebra in the eighth grade, I realized that readers had a lot of opinions about math curriculums.

Most readers were supportive of the concept. “Algebra 1 opens the door to precise abstract reasoning,” one reader emailed me. “Every kid should at least be exposed to algebra (and geometry) by 8th grade to give them the fundamentals of thinking logically and rationally,” another reader put it in an email.

Still, others argued in favor of flexibility because “some students are wonderful in math and need to be challenged. Others need a bit more time and reinforcement of fundamentals,” a former high school math teacher and tutor teacher wrote.

All of that is fair. I also realized, in writing about the importance of teaching algebra, that the tension between theoretical math and practical math is real and that math curriculum does matter beyond algebra and calculus.

Exhibit A: Peter Coy, an opinion writer for The New York Times, recently made the case for mandating more personal finance instruction in elementary math education and less of the kind of math problems that you’ll probably never encounter in real life, like what is “the cosecant of a 30-degree angle.”

He’s onto something. But I would argue that early algebra and teaching students about money are not mutually exclusive. I would imagine that no one would be opposed to having students in high school — or earlier — take a personal finance course. We all have to make financial decisions on a day-to-day basis. So why not make taking such a class a high school graduation requirement?

You’d be surprised to learn that Massachusetts, for all its educational exceptionalism, is not one of the 25 states that guarantee a standalone half-credit course in financial literacy for high school students before graduation or are in the process of implementing such a policy, according to Nex Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that provides free personal finance curriculum. In fact, only 17 districts in Massachusetts require a financial literacy course to graduate high school.

“We took this on as an office to speak to all the reports and studies that show the negative impacts” of bad credit, Boston City Councilor Brian Worrell of District 4 said in an interview with me. “There’s one study that shows that young adults in majority Black communities tend to have below the subprime threshold in credit scores and those low scores have significant and long lasting financial consequences.”

It’s why Worrell and the District 4 Youth Council, which the councilor created in his first term, held a “credit camp” last week at the Mattapan Teen Center. In the workshop, about 50-60 participants learned how to avoid mistakes with credit and how to build credit and leverage it.

It’s important to also see financial literacy as a racial equity issue. According to a 2020 paper, “[r]acial and ethnic disparities on financial knowledge are well documented. Blacks and Hispanics tend to score low in financial literacy” in various national studies and surveys, wrote researchers Marco Angrisani, Sergio Barrera, Luisa R. Blanco, and Salvador Contreras. Financial literacy should absolutely be seen as a tool that can help eliminate racial wealth gaps.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I’m nearly 50 years old and still struggle with managing money. I didn’t know that elementary and secondary students could learn personal finance until I moved to the United States from Mexico, a country where the concept of a national credit bureau didn’t take off until the late 1990s.

Why wait to teach youth personal finance? We shouldn’t. That’s why state Representative Ryan Hamilton filed a bill that would require all high school students in Massachusetts to take a half-credit course on financial literacy in order to graduate.

“When I was in high school, we had a couple of courses on finances that were available as electives but not only did a lot of students not take them, but unfortunately they were electives,” said Hamilton, who said he’s the youngest member of the Legislature at 26. A lot of students didn’t take these courses, he said, because they were afraid it would hurt their GPA or because they’d rather take Advanced Placement courses. Hamilton told me he has yet to see public opposition to the bill, which is currently waiting to be reported out of committee.

Just as algebraic thinking could provide a great foundation to any career path, the state cannot afford to graduate high schoolers without a strong base of financial literacy knowledge: the fundamentals of banking, taxes, budgeting, managing and improving credit scores, and, perhaps crucially, the basics of financing higher education.

Programming like Worrell’s definitely has a meaningful impact in strengthening financial literacy all over the city. Ultimately, however, a state mandate to teach personal finance to youth is needed.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.

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