Soon a trip across the stage to collect a diploma in the Westside Community Schools will require training in banking, credit and budgets.
Beginning with the Class of 2017, all Westside students will have to take a personal finance course to graduate.
The move, while more of an adjustment than a radical change for the district, comes amid a continuing push to beef up financial education.
Nationally, a growing number of states require that students take an economics course or a personal finance course.
Nebraska and Iowa don't require either course, though some individual schools require them. Both states include economics and personal finance in the state standards that specify what kids need to know.
Nebraska's proposed new social studies standards, which the Nebraska Board of Education will consider approving in December, feature personal finance more prominently than the current standards. In Iowa, financial literacy is one of five “literacies” listed under the new 21st Century Skills category in the Iowa Core Curriculum.
Locally, the Council Bluffs school district doesn't require personal finance for graduation, said spokeswoman Diane Ostrowski, but elements are embedded throughout the coursework.
Economics is required, and programs at the middle and high school level give students the opportunity to apply those skills. TS Bank recently opened a full-service branch at Thomas Jefferson High School, where students work as tellers under the supervision of a bank employee.
In Nebraska, the number of Nebraska high schools that require financial education continues to grow, said Bonnie Sibert, career field specialist for business, marketing and management for the Nebraska Department of Education. Some have required it for years.
“We've been encouraging it,” Sibert said, “and the economy helped us out.”
Driving such offerings is a recognition of the heightened need for financial savvy given the economy, the loan debt and credit card pitches college students face, and the increased responsibility most consumers bear for making complicated financial decisions about investments, health insurance, even cellphone plans.
School boards, Sibert said, see even top-notch students going off to colleges with little or no knowledge about budgeting, saving and managing credit. Many colleges now require some sort of financial education once kids get to campus, whether it comes in a formal class or an orientation.
“They're concerned about kids racking up debt and leaving without a degree,” she said.
Beyond college, she said, adults young and old need to understand the importance of saving, both to tap the power of compounding interest and to prepare for a job loss or other emergency.
In Westside's case, the district for years has required students to pass a minimum competency test on personal finance. It has offered a full-semester personal finance class for a long time, too.
In 2009, it added a condensed consumerism class covering the basics, such as automobile insurance and credit cards, for students who didn't take personal finance. The change means the condensed class eventually will go away and all students will take the full personal finance class.
The personal finance class, for its part, has proved to be pretty effective.
Before the condensed consumerism course was added, students could opt to simply review a study guide and take the competency test. Between 30 percent and 40 percent typically passed the first time, said Sarah Schau, head of the high school's business department.
With the consumerism class, the first-time pass rate was about 55 percent. However, 96 percent or more of students who took the full personal finance course — four days a week for a semester — passed the first time. About 180 students now take the class each year.
“We want to really say with confidence that our kids do have some financial literacy when they graduate from Westside High School,” Schau said.
School board members — all of whom are parents — approved the proposal 6-0.
“It's the perfect time to do this,” said Tom Baker, a board member.
Some other districts also are making — or considering — adjustments. Students in the Lincoln Public Schools already are required to take a semester of economics. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, all juniors will be required to take a one-semester course that integrates personal finance and career planning.
The course is intended to help students create — and carry out — a plan to go from high school to college, the workforce or the military given their interests, career goals and financial considerations.
» Who's offering it:
Of 172 public and private Nebraska high schools surveyed, 122 offer personal finance. Forty-seven require a personal finance class for graduation, up from 39 in 2010. Economics, which can include elements of personal finance, is required for graduation at 52 high schools, up from 44 in 2010. Most large school districts — including Omaha, Millard and Lincoln — require one or the other or both.
» What they are teaching:
Westside's course focuses on what young people need to know: consumer buying, budgeting and financial records, saving and basic investing, and insurance, particularly automobile and renters policies.
Twenty-two states require an economics course, up from one in 2009. Thirteen states require a personal finance course, the same as 2009 but up seven from 2007.
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