Nebraska weighs financial literacy education in schools
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers are looking for ways to increase financial literacy training in schools, an issue highlighted by a national report that gave the state a mediocre rating in its efforts to teach students how to handle money.
Nebraska offers a patchwork of courses with no uniform, statewide requirements for showing students how to balance budgets, invest wisely and manage their debt, state and industry officials say. A report last year by the Vermont-based Center for Financial Literacy gave the state a "C'' grade along with 11 other states. Twenty-four states received higher marks.
Nebraska already offers financial literacy education in some of its social studies curriculum. But state officials and lenders say schools should expand those lessons to include more detail or require a stand-alone high school course.
"It impacts home ownership. It impacts people's ability to start a business. It impacts their ability to get a family started," said Richard Baier, president and CEO of the Nebraska Bankers Association. "It reverberates through every aspect of our state economy."
Baier said many young Nebraskans can't get mortgages because their student loan and credit card debts are too high. Local lenders have also complained that they often reject potential bank employees because the applicants have poor credit.
State Sen. Mike Hilgers, of Lincoln, introduced a bill in January to require state education officials to adopt standards for teaching financial literacy in schools. The bill was shelved for the year, but Hilgers said he's still working with interested groups to expand the curriculum the state currently offers.
Hilgers said he doesn't want to heap another mandate on the state's public schools and is willing to allow changes without formal legislation.
"This isn't a top-down approach," he said. "It's meant to be collaborative."
Roughly 60 percent of Nebraska's K-12 students receive mandatory lessons on managing personal finances, and 43 percent get required lessons on economics, according to the Nebraska Council on Economic Education. Most school districts offer instruction in both areas but do not require it.
Those lessons are especially important for high school students before they graduate and sign student loan agreements to pay for college, said Jennifer Davidson, president of the group based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"We need to get to a point where we teach all students how to weigh the costs and benefits of the decisions they make," Davidson said. "I think, unfortunately, a lot of them don't realize the impact that taking on $100,000 in student loans is going to have on them."
Davidson said the state will probably need to hire or train more teachers to meet the demand without imposing additional mandates on schools.
A representative for Nebraska public school teachers said his group supports the idea of providing more financial literacy education but would prefer to make changes through the state Board of Education and local school boards.
New requirements enacted by state law are more difficult to revise than policies approved by the state education board, said Jay Sears, of the Nebraska State Education Association. Sears said he was working with Hilgers and others to find a solution and was confident they'd reach an agreement.
"Yes, we need financial literacy standards," he said. "But what we tend to get with legislation is a directive to do something, but no resources to do it."
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who has taken steps to expand financial literacy education in classrooms, said Nebraska should require all students to take a stand-alone course before they graduate high school. Those who don't are likely to struggle with money in the future, he said.
"This is something every single student will use throughout their lifetimes," Stenberg said. "There aren't many subjects where that is true for every single student."
Stenberg said more than 36,000 students across Nebraska have participated in a free, online program sponsored by his office that teaches students about personal finance. Exams given before and after the course show that students have learned about handling money, but Stenberg said the state needs to provide more education about student loans and other forms of debt.
"In terms of financial literacy, my sense is that Nebraska is doing better than a number of states, but still far short of where it needs to be," he said.
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