By Dan Kadlec
September 9, 2014

As the financial industry has worked to restore its image since the meltdown six years ago, one popular approach has been underwriting financial education programs aimed at teens and young adults. Tax preparer H&R Block unveiled its salvo on Monday, offering $3 million in college scholarships to high school students who ace an online budget game.

Block joins a bunch of national and regional banks from Bank of America to Key and FirstBank that sponsor some kind of financial education program. Credit-card company Visa and accounting giant PwC have made big commitments to youth financial education. The result of this broad push has been a disparate and often questioned effort to teach young people practical money skills while the financial industry nurses a badly damaged reputation.

Block is not a bank or credit company. It never sold anyone an exploding subprime mortgage. Still, when the company began looking around for a signature cause it landed fairly quickly on financial education for youth. “It’s appalling how clueless many teens are about money,” says Block CEO William Cobb.

He makes no apologies that Block’s “budget challenge” is as much about smart marketing as it is about helping teens get smart about money. The challenge concludes on Tax Day, April 15. But Cobb says educating high school kids about student loans and more is also “the right thing to do” and is “at the emotional center” of what the company stands for.

In a recent PISA assessment spanning 18 countries, the first of its kind, American 15-year-olds were found to be just average in terms of money know-how. Numerous other studies have shown that young people have a flunking knowledge of things like compound growth, inflation, taxes, investing and budgets.

Block’s program is built around an online game that simulates real world decisions. It is designed as part of a class with a teacher augmenting lessons that adhere to the Jumpstart Coalition’s standards for youth personal finance instruction and the Council for Economic Education’s standards for financial literacy.

The carrot for high school students is a college scholarship. The first challenge will begin Oct. 3 and last for nine weeks. Five more challenges will run through mid-April next year. Students need about 30 minutes to set up their profile and about 30 minutes per week after that in order to compete.

Students who score well by making smart decisions about insurance, retirement saving, fees, unexpected expenses and more may win as much as $20,000 toward college tuition. There will be 132 such awards along with some prize grants for teachers and classrooms—and one grand prize scholarship of $100,000 going to the top student across all six challenges.

The Block program appears both fun and engaging. Participants will have access to a real-time leader board to see where they stand and, Cobb says, winning isn’t as simple as just choosing the most conservative options. As in life, things are constantly changing. Kids will need to figure which trade-offs make the most sense in this simulated world of money so that, maybe, one day they’ll be good at it in the real world.

Related:
3 Mistakes That Will Cost You a College Scholarship
How to Get Full Credit When You Swap Colleges

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