By Kathleen Brennan, 2013 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Teaching Champion Award recipient.
It goes without saying that today’s females have career opportunities that weren’t available to them a century ago. The statistics are impressive– according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, females make up 60% of college graduates and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that labor participation rates of females have increased from 32% in 1950 to about 57% in 2012. Women have come a long way. The good news is that women have made great strides in breaking the glass ceiling and closing the pay gap; the bad news is that they still lag well behind men in terms of financial literacy. Ignorance in financial matters is particularly concerning since women have unique financial challenges—while many women rely on their husbands “to handle the money”, the reality is that 90% of women will be solely responsible for their finances at some point in their lives due to the death of a spouse or divorce (Gender Gap in Financial Literacy 2012). Clearly, a man cannot be a “financial plan”.
The curriculum at the single-sex high school where I teach is designed to develop strong, independent women who are well-prepared for college and beyond. After the financial crisis of 2008, many exposed the financial vulnerability of all our citizens, we recognized that another integral part of the school’s mission was to prepare our students for the financial challenges of the future. Knowing that our students, regardless of their career paths, would need to manage their financial welfare at some point in their lives, we developed a one semester financial literacy course designed to teach the basics of financial management. Starting in 2011, we began offering this class to our juniors and seniors—the students closest to making decisions regarding college and their financial futures. The course focuses on teaching our students how to make thoughtful and responsible decisions about spending, saving, borrowing, and investing. Concepts from economics provide the organizing framework about how to make good decisions and avoid poor ones. Using material provided by the Council of Economic Education, the course incorporates real world concepts in a variety of ways. Role playing, group discussions, research from the Internet, case studies, career planning, budgeting, and a stock market project ensure that our girls learn the fundamentals of money management.
Student reaction to the course has been extremely positive. Many remark that the course has made them recognize the importance of sound financial decision making and are glad they took the course while they were still in high school. A student who, shall we say, began the class as a spendthrift confessed at the end: “Money can do some pretty amazing things as long as I start to save early and let the miracle of compounding take over. By taking your class I recognize how important it is to have my money work for me, rather than spending it on another piece of clothing that I don’t need.” The most significant result is that my students feel empowered by their knowledge of the fundamentals of saving and investing. They know that that their financial future is in their hands, and they have been given the tools to deal with it.