A required personal finance course in high school leads to higher credit scores and fewer missed payments among young adults, new research shows. These are groundbreaking findings likely to alter educators’ thinking in 50 states.
Until now, researchers have been unable to show consistent evidence that mandatory financial education improved students’ money management skills. With no proof, states have moved slowly on this front—despite encouragement from the president and federal education officials who see financial education as a critical part of the strategy to avoid another financial crisis.
Only 22 states require students to take an economics course, and just 17 require instruction in personal finance, according to the Council for Economic Education’s most recent Survey of the States. While countries like Australia and England have adopted federal mandates for such coursework, the effort in the U.S. is at the state level and has been slow to gain traction.
Critics of financial education have long argued that kids may learn financial concepts but do not retain them long enough to change behavior as adults, and that the power of advertising overwhelms any lessons of frugality learned in high school. Some believe financial education is a waste, and that we are better off using resources to set up third-party point-of-decision counseling.
Now the whole conversation may change. “I hope many people will read this paper and that many more states will adopt financial education in high school,” says Annamaria Lusardi, academic director at the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center and an economics professor at the George Washington University School of Business.
Looking at students in three states—Georgia, Idaho, and Texas—that recently adopted relatively thorough financial education requirements, researchers tied to the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin found that young adults 18-22 in those states had higher credit scores and fewer credit delinquencies than students in neighboring states without a financial education requirement.
Interestingly, the first class of students in each state required to take such a course showed little or no improvement in credit score or delinquencies. But each subsequent class made noticeable strides toward smarter money management. This suggests there is a learning curve for teachers and schools, and that they become far more effective with practice.
Specifically, the research showed that three years after high school, students required to take a financial education class had significantly improved credit scores—up 11 points in Georgia, 16 points in Idaho, and 32 points in Texas, outstripping the gains in comparable states. In the third year, all three states also had cut the rate of credit payments at least 90 days late in this age group by 10% in Georgia, 16% in Idaho, and 33% in Texas.
Young adults have been shown to have particularly low levels of financial acumen; they are most prone to expensive credit behaviors like payday loans and paying interest and late fees on credit card balances. This behavior, combined with soaring student debt, often puts them in a financial bind before they earn their first paycheck. A little financial education, the evidence now shows, may go long way.