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The High School Class That Makes People Richer

Feb 24, 2015

Most experts believe students who study personal finance in school learn valuable money management concepts. Less clear is how much they retain into adulthood and whether studying things like budgets and saving changes behavior for the better.

But evidence that financial education works is beginning to surface. Researchers at the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin recently found a direct tie between personal finance classes in high school and higher credit scores as young adults. Now, national results from a high school “budget challenge” further build the case.

Researchers surveyed more than 25,000 high school students that participated in a nine-week Budget Challenge Simulation contest last fall and found the students made remarkable strides in financial awareness. After the contest:

  • 92% said learning about money management was very important and 80% wanted to learn more
  • 92% said they were more likely to check their account balance before writing a check
  • 89% said they were more confident and 91% said they were more aware of money pitfalls and mistakes
  • 87% said they were better able to avoid bank and credit card fees
  • 84% said they were better able to understand fine print and 79% said they were better able to compare financial products
  • 78% said they learned money management methods that worked best for them
  • 53% said they were rethinking their college major or career choice with an eye toward higher pay

These figures represent a vast improvement over attitudes about money before the contest, which H&R Block sponsored and individual teachers led in connection with a class. For example, among those surveyed before and after the contest, those who said learning about money was very important jumped to 92% from 81% and those who said having a budget was very important jumped to 84% from 71%. Those who said they should spend at least 45 minutes a month on their finances jumped to 44% from 31%.

The budget challenge simulates life decisions around insurance, retirement saving, household budgets, income, rent, cable packages, student loans, cell phones, and bank accounts. Teachers like it because it is experiential learning wrapped around a game with prizes. Every decision reshapes a student’s simulated financial picture and leads to more decision points, like when to a pay a bill in full or pay only the minimum to avoid fees while waiting for the next paycheck.

Block is giving away $3 million in scholarships and classroom grants to winners. The first round of awards totaling $1.4 million went out the door in January.

The new data fall short of proving that financial education leads to behavior improvement and smarter decisions as adults, and such proof is sorely needed if schools to are to hop on board with programs like this in a meaningful way. Yet the results clearly point to long-term benefits.

Once a student—no matter what age, including adults—learns that fine print is important and bank fees add up she is likely to be on the lookout the rest of her life. Once a student chooses to keep learning about money management he usually does. Added confidence only helps. Once students develop habits that work well for them and understand pitfalls and mistakes, they are likely to keep searching for what works and what protects them even as the world changes and their finances grow more complex. Slowly, skeptics about individuals’ ability to learn and sort out money issues for themselves are being discredited. But we have a long way to go.

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