Virginia and Maryland schools require personal finance courses, but how much will they help?

April 12, 2012

In the summer of 2008, Jacob Karlin, currently a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, scored his first job: selling doughnuts on the boardwalk in Ocean City. But the doughnuts he made from scratch each morning were still sitting there, un-bought, each afternoon. It wasn’t long before the manager gathered the staff. “We can’t afford to keep most of you,” he said. Just like that, Karlin was unemployed.

He tried to find another job with no luck. “A lot of teens couldn’t find jobs,” Karlin recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s the recession at work right there.’ ”

Meanwhile, his father’s small insurance company also started losing clients, forcing the family to become more frugal. “When our parents are worrying, that transfers onto us,” Karlin says.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by Charles Schwab, 93 percent of teens ages 16 to 18 say their families have been affected by the recession. Even students at Walter Johnson, whose student body is mostly upper-middle-class, have reported that their parents have been canceling vacations, buying in bulk and clipping coupons. And because of that, young people’s attitudes toward money have begun to change. According to the Schwab study, high percentages say they are more grateful for what they have and are less likely to ask for things they want today than in 2007.

Coming of age in the great recession has made students more aware of financial concerns, but it hasn’t provided them the tools to be more financially responsible.

Local educators have recognized this, and in September, Virginia became the fourth state (alongside Tennessee, Utah and Missouri) to implement a mandatory class in personal finance and economics for all incoming freshmen. And Maryland just became one of 21 states to adopt an “integrated” approach to teaching these subjects, folding them into social studies and math.

(The District established a Financial Literacy Council in 2008 with the goal of introducing financial literacy in schools, but the council is still recruiting members. A handful of D.C. schools teach the subject on their own.)

Still, it’s unclear whether these various approaches to financial education will make kids more responsible than their parents. “We need to see much more education and research to know what’s effective,” says Laura Levine, president and chief executive of Jump$tart, an umbrella organization that publishes the national standards for personal finance education. “This is a very young discipline.”

***

A student at Marshall High School in Falls Church stands awkwardly at the front of the room.

“Tell me about earnings per share,” says Terence Mayo, who teaches the personal finance and economics (PFE) class at the Fairfax County school.

The teenager begins to peek at the “smart board” behind her, where her homework answer — definition and real-world example — dangles like a lifeline.

“Without looking!” Mayo intones.

The student mumbles her answer — unintelligible to the kids in the back of the room — and meekly returns to her seat. The class seems a little bored.

“You guys need to speak up!” Mayo encourages the class before calling out to the next student. Halfway through this presentation, on blue-chip stocks, a girl calls out: “Mr. Mayo! They talked about that on the news the other night, and I said, ‘Mom! I know this!’ ”

For a number of years, a version of PFE has been offered as an elective in Fairfax. Now, the Virginia Board of Education has identified 18 standards, or economic concepts, which all incoming freshmen must learn before they graduate. Some schools are teaching economics and personal finance as separate courses. Others, like Marshall, have combined them. Topics include budgeting, banking, credit, insurance, taxes, saving, investing, buying/leasing a vehicle and inheritance.

Only a handful of the students in Mayo’s class this year are freshmen; students say most kids don’t know about the requirement. Freshman Will Ferguson, 15, signed up early at the urging of his mom, who wanted him to learn about money management. Today, Ferguson is talking like a seasoned stockbroker. “Home Depot’s on a high right now and is still going up a little bit,” he says. The stock was one of three that Ferguson chose to follow for a class assignment.

Ferguson says the class has changed the way he thinks about spending. “At the movies, I used to get popcorn and a drink and the ticket, all of which is $25. Now, I’m just getting the ticket,” he says. “I’m looking at prices.”

Before she took PFE, freshman Sanam Analouei, 14, had never thought about the cost of her extracurricular activities and monthly cellphone bill — not to mention her basic necessities. “I realized how much I’m worth every month,” she says. “And in a family of four, that’s a lot of money. I can’t believe my dad has to pay for all that.”

Freshman Otilia Lampman’s mother has been unemployed for more than a year, and though her father has a full-time job, finances at home are tight. The 15-year-old says that when her parents discuss the economy over dinner, she now understands what they’re talking about. “And I could explain finances to them,” she says. “If they wanted my help.”

Like Ferguson and Analouei, Lampman says PFE has also made her more aware of the money she spends. “I like to leave my money at home,” she says, “because when you go out, it’s difficult not to spend what you bring with you.”

“The en masse marketing tools didn’t exist when we were young,” says Edward J. Grenier III, president and chief executive of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, an area program that promotes financial literacy. “But today young people are bombarded.”

Grenier says financial literacy is fundamentally about making informed choices. “By the time marketers start creeping into kids’ lives, they should have a backdrop of knowledge — know the difference between a want versus a need. Waiting until high school to do this is too late.”

***

At 11:52 a.m. on a Friday, the Georgetown Square shopping center adjacent to Walter Johnson High School teems with hungry teenagers. According to this crowd, eating in the cafeteria is supremely uncool. Few of them know exactly how much a cafeteria meal costs ($2.75 for a main dish, two sides and milk), but they do know the price of a burrito bowl at Chipotle (about $6.75 before tax) and the cost of the student special at Flippin’ Pizza ($6 for two slices and a drink).

Wolfgang Jarquin, a 16-year-old junior in line at Chipotle, eats out nearly every day and spends roughly $40 a week, using money from his parents. “They know the routine by now,” he says.

Does Wolfgang think $40 is a reasonable amount to spend each week on lunch?

“I’d say it’s a lot,” he admits, and then pauses to consider this.

“If I was my parents, I wouldn’t want my kids spending [all that] money on lunch,” he says.

Kids’ relationship to money is complicated. You wouldn’t expect most high schoolers to consider the difference in price between a burrito from Chipotle and the cost of a homemade sandwich. But you might not expect them to become visibly sheepish or even guilty when they do. Kids are poised to take these money issues to heart, but the question is: What is the best way to prepare them?

Katharine Oliver, assistant state superintendent for career and college readiness at the Maryland Department of Education, believes financial literacy education that is integrated into social studies and math throughout a student’s entire school career will be more effective than a stand-alone class. “You don’t become literate in a foreign language with just one course,” Oliver says. Language fluency also requires practical application. The best way to become fluent in French is to live in France: to buy groceries and negotiate with the phone company in French.

To be sure, the new financial curriculum teaches useful skills, such as how to read a W-2 form and write a check. But some educators are concerned that this classroom work is too abstract. “When we have students sit there and try to memorize a lot of terms, they’ll think of money management as something for adults,” Grenier says. “These concepts needs to be brought to life.”

Many Virginia schools offer programs in career and technical education, or CTE, where students can earn industry certifications and as many as six college credits in fields including entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, automotive technology and cosmetology. CTE isn’t vocational training.

“It’s not a school-to-work program, but you get exposed,” says Jeff McFarland, who runs the CTE Academy at Marshall in Fairfax. “If you’re studying nursing, you can see if blood bothers you,” he says.

At Marshall, hotel management students intern at area Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Entrepreneurship students are working with Papa Murphy’s, a pizza establishment, to develop a new marketing plan. The entrepreneurship students say their classes have provided them a foundation in personal finance and economics, both conceptually and practically.

Students are tasked with starting their own hypothetical companies, which includes writing a detailed business plan, marketing a product, and learning how to take out and manage loans and how to budget.

Ali Skahan, 18, a senior at Marshall, says entrepreneurship has taught her to think ahead financially and “prepare for the worst.”

Ben Pavich, 16, a sophomore at Dominion High School in Loudoun County, is dressed head to toe in swag from his favorite pro football team, the Indianapolis Colts. Since he signed up for sports and entertainment marketing, he has learned a lot about how companies target consumers. He had never thought of social media as a marketing tool, such as advertisements on Facebook or those QR codes you scan with your smartphone.

“I get mad thinking that I’ve been duped into doing stupid things because of marketing,” Pavich says. “Marketers find these little ways of getting into people’s lives.”

Ironically, Pavich now wants to become a marketer and influence other people.

“We do teach ethics,” says his marketing teacher, Sandra Tucker.

“I want to give customers a good product,” Pavich clarifies. And he knows that marketing can be used not only to sell but also to help others. Through the marketing program, he co-organized a fundraiser that brought in 600 volunteers to package 40,000 meals for underprivileged Virginians. Pavich initially took marketing as an alternative to fine art, but the fundraiser required him to think about the role graphic design plays in a successful advertising campaign.

As a sophomore, Pavich doesn’t have to take the new PFE course. He’s happy about this, because the new requirement would make it difficult for him to take other electives, such as AP English, band or another marketing course.

Tucker shares that concern, especially since she has seen a significant increase in CTE enrollment since the recession started. “Personally, my wish would be that the state allowed students to choose the financial literacy course or a CTE course that incorporates those concepts,” she says.

***

Last February, Walter Johnson senior Catrina Johnson was feeling stressed. In just a few months, the all-important letter from Emory University would arrive. But Johnson, 17, was almost as anxious about getting a thick letter as she was about getting a thin one.

“Emory costs $55,000 a year,” she said. “If I go there, I’ll have to do work-study or get a job to pay for school. I’m going for pre-med, and I’m not sure I can handle all that.” She has considered loans but is worried about being able to pay them back.

Of course, there’s an alternative.

“UMBC costs just under $20,000,” she said, sighing. “When you have your heart set on a dream school, the reality can be disappointing.”

Johnson consoles herself with the fact that her chosen profession is both something she loves and a career that will provide financially. “Everyone needs a doctor,” she says. “It seems like a pretty safe bet.”

But Jacob Karlin, who lost his job at the doughnut shop four years ago, is less certain about the future. “Teachers and parents are always saying, ‘Do what you love,’ ” he says, “but the fact is that a lot of us will end up studying something that doesn’t necessarily interest us or make us happy, but that makes us a living.”

Johnson believes that some faculty members at Walter Johnson are teaching as a fall-back. “It’s great to be a teacher,” she says, “but it’s heartbreaking when you have to sacrifice your dream job for what is practical.”

In some ways, these kids are more realistic than the adults in their lives. The “do what you love” mantra is based on the assumption that hard work and passion reap rewards. But both Karlin and Johnson think that a flailing economy means you have to fight that much harder for what you want.

“If you want to succeed,” Karlin says, “you better make some good friends.”

Johnson came to a similar conclusion after her father told her about LinkedIn, the professional networking site. “It’s not just about graduating with honors,” she says.

Both seniors have different opinions about which option they think is better: Virginia’s stand-alone financial literacy and economics class or Maryland’s integrated curriculum. But looking back on their high school careers, they wish they’d had some element of financial literacy. Johnson jokes about needing a class solely dedicated to her Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, known as the FAFSA. Karlin wishes someone had clued him in about the W-2 form.

“I opened it up, and I had no idea what to do with it,” he says, as though the document were written in Russian or Swahili.

“I’m supposed to be working on it with my parents, but I still don’t really understand it.”

And that is part of the problem. Parents aren’t totally equipped to teach financial literacy to their kids. Johnson says her parents recently took a class about wills and inheritance. “And I said, ‘You guys are, like, over 50 years old! How did you not know how to do this?’ ”

Sandra Tucker, a 14-year veteran of marketing and entrepreneurship education, recently took the same exam that Virginia’s PFE students will be required to take. “It was challenging,” she says.

***

Educators in Maryland and Virginia acknowledge that even implementing the new curriculum — let alone determining its effectiveness — is going to be a challenge. Teachers certified in math, social studies, economics and business are considered qualified to teach the new course, but they have to be trained. Dominion High School is aiming to offer the new course to juniors, beginning in 2013. At Marshall in Falls Church, the course is so new that Terence Mayo’s class is the only one currently offered, but it will require 17 different sections to accommodate one grade level, roughly 400 students. Marshall is exploring an online option, which students could take for free during the school day, and a class outside school for $800, which they would have to cover on their own. There’s also a summer option on the table.

In Maryland, there hasn’t been much movement yet. At Walter Johnson, the principal only recently received guidelines for the new integrated curriculum. The District is moving even more slowly, with efforts to coordinate education initiatives stalled.

Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations are ramping up their own financial literacy projects. Perhaps the largest is JA Finance Park, a 20,000-square-foot complex in Fairfax run by Junior Achievement, where students role-play real-life scenarios in money management.

All Fairfax County eighth-graders receive 21 hours of in-class economics and financial literacy education and are then sent to Finance Park to put their knowledge to the test. “A kid can learn what a transportation line of a budget is,” Ed Grenier says, “but when they’re making decisions as if it was their own family’s budget, they have that ‘aha’ moment.”

But are educators placing too much pressure on 13- and 14-year-olds to grapple with these real-world economic responsibilities, or on older adolescents by mandating that they know the ins and outs of stocks and credit? Currently, young people coming of age in the recession remain optimistic about the future, with 65 percent saying they plan to choose a career based not on economic considerations but on their passions, according to the Schwab study. Perhaps a wake-up call is necessary, but what if they, too, become cynical, overwhelmed by the challenging future that awaits them?

Laura Levine, of Jump$tart, believes the push for financial education will provide a “healthy dose of realism.” But she doesn’t see this as a risk. “If young consumers have a better understanding of how finance works, it should add to their peace of mind, rather than to their anxiety,” she says. “They might start to understand that they won’t make as much money as they thought, but they will have the knowledge and skills for their financial well-being anyway.”

It’s this practical knowledge that Jacob Karlin still seeks, just a few months shy of graduation. “You can’t prepare people enough for what it’s gonna be like without their parents,” he says and alludes to that impenetrable W-2 form. “The more help we get the better.”

Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, “The Year of the Gadfly,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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