Traditionally, students must complete math, English and science credits to graduate from high school. At Oconomowoc High School in Wisconsin, seniors must now also learn about 401(k)s before they earn their caps and gowns.
Starting with this year’s freshman class, personal finance will be a required course for students at Oconomowoc High School. The nine-week class meets for 90 minutes every weekday, and students earn a half credit for passing. Using data from financial trends, the curriculum has been designed to help students with issues they will face in the real world, including taking out and paying off student loans, using credit cards, reading and signing leases, plus investing and saving.
“Whether it is evaluating a university based on the expected debt load necessary to attend or learning the basics of retirement investing and compounding interest, we want our students to be financially literate,” said John Flannery, director of curriculum at Oconomowoc Area School District. “We believe this requirement ensures all students will leave with acquired skills to prepare each for these scenarios in their future.”
The school has offered personal finance as an elective class since 2003, with many students taking it after being encouraged by parents. That said, Kyla Stefan, Oconomowoc’s business education teacher, has seen students become empowered after taking her class. “Many past students often commented that the class was so meaningful that it should be required for all students at the high school,” she told Yahoo Finance.
States adopt financial literacy standards
Oconomowoc isn’t the only school making personal finance a priority. Statewide, Wisconsin has made significant moves toward making such courses mandatory in its schools. Just last June, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill requiring school boards to adopt academic standards for financial literacy and implement them into classrooms.
Across the nation, there are only five states that require a standalone course in personal finance for high school graduation. The first state to implement the standard was Utah, where students have been required to complete a semester-long financial literacy course since 2008.
In the past decade, Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee, and Alabama have also made personal finance courses a requirement for graduation. Topics covered in these courses range from saving and investing to selecting the right insurance.
While the graduation mandate hasn’t been enforced everywhere, the Council for Economic Education (CEE) reports that 17 states do require students to take a course in personal finance during high school. In many cases, these courses are not standalone, and may simply be a topic covered in another class. Only 20 states require students to take a class in economics.
The encouraging news is that states are becoming more and more concerned with the lack of financial literacy. In Massachusetts, lawmakers have filed 10 different financial education bills. In Pennsylvania, House Bill 429, which proposes new laws to mandate financial literacy courses for high school graduation, is up for a vote.
The question now is not if schools will mandate financial literacy in schools, but when. For Oconomowoc High School, that time is now.
“Whether it’s reading a mortgage statement or evaluating an auto loan … we know our students will face these financial decisions each day,” said Flannery. “We feel it is our responsibility to provide each student with the knowledge and skills to be a bit more prepared.”
Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.