Calculus Before Credit Scores?

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Issue 14, Volume 112

By Anisha Singhal 

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We focus so much of our lives on scores—the SHSAT, SAT, ACT, and GPA are all quantifiable measures of our work and aptitude that we strive to perfect. But how many of us are preparing for the most important, ongoing score of our lives: our credit score? After graduating, some of us may never solve a calculus problem again. Others may never look under a microscope. But every single one of us will have to manage our finances. And our ability to manage our finances will impact every facet of our lives. Yet these are the skills that high schools aren’t teaching us.

Financial unpreparedness is a national catastrophe that is constantly chipping away at people’s livelihoods. A study by the National Financial Educators Council found that the lack of education on personal finances cost Americans a collective $352 billion in 2021. Only 34 percent of Americans can score at least a four out of five on a basic financial literacy test. Such high rates of financial illiteracy have detrimental impacts on people’s savings and economic stability. Nearly half of Americans don’t have enough savings to get through three months of expenses, and 36 percent are financially fragile (meaning they cannot gather $2,000 within a month if faced with an emergency). Of course, external factors such as low wages and high living expenses greatly influence savings and debt, but if schools instill good financial habits in their students, future generations will be a lot more prepared for economic hardships, such as global pandemics or housing crises.

Student loans are such a critical concept that they are one of the frontline issues in many political campaigns. For instance, President Joe Biden has forgiven $16 billion worth of student debt, a financial burden that about 45 million Americans carry. As people graduate from college, an overwhelming amount of debt weighs them down, sometimes up until their fifties. Yet when I go off to college and am looking to take out a loan, I would be clueless about where to even begin if it weren’t for my parents’ support, research, and knowledge. Many high school students are at the doorsteps of momentous financial decisions that may influence the course of the rest of their lives, but are educationally unprepared to make them.

When schools fail to deliver education on essential life skills, families are forced to pick up the burden at home. Despite this responsibility, 69 percent of parents have some level of reluctance to discuss money-related matters with their children, meaning many students do not get any financial education at all. Unfortunately, the students who are most negatively impacted by insufficient financial education are usually those whose families may also lack that knowledge. People are generally confident and willing to discuss fields in which they themselves have been successful. Therefore, more affluent parents with abundant financial knowledge are much better equipped to discuss financial matters with their children than parents who struggle financially. This educational disparity regarding money, a matter that plays a critical role in everyone’s life, further increases the divide between the rich and the poor. Even worse, students may not know that they are financially illiterate until they are thrown headfirst into making their own financial decisions and find themselves completely unprepared.

To understand the lack of financial education, we must look to the educational requirements that state legislation has outlined. While 23 states technically require financial education, only nine states require it to be a stand-alone class. Other states (including New York) simply require it to be integrated into another course. This means that at Stuyvesant, personal finance is touched upon in Economics classes for the sake of fulfilling the New York State Education Department requirement without a comprehensive commitment to delivering quality education on the subject. As of now, there isn’t even a unit on personal finance in most Economics classes since teachers often exclude it when shaping their packed curriculums. Regardless, a mere unit on personal finance cannot do justice to the complexity of the topic. Economics and personal finance are two very different subjects which deserve separate attention. In the long term, New York should mandate financial literacy education, which multiple organizations are lobbying for. But in the short term, Stuyvesant, as a prestigious high school, should take accountability for the quality and purpose of its own education.

When preparing for AP exams, we have a full year of loaded content and robust curriculums. But when it comes to preparing for life exams, we have one section of a semester-long class that only 68 fortunate students—8 percent of each senior class—can take. There are a plethora of non-state-required classes (such as electives and tech classes) that Stuyvesant provides for the enrichment of a student's learning—classes such as drafting and ceramics which while interesting classes, are not nearly as impactful and relevant as a personal finance course.

Providing financial literacy education to students is an imperative step toward safeguarding their futures from the stress caused by early financial cluelessness. We are in the financial capital of the world and yet are failing to build the foundations for financial knowledge. Over time, our GPAs will fade into inconsequential measures of past excellence; it’s our credit score that has the potential to define our futures.

(This article is an adapted version and continued dialogue of “Calculus Before Checkbooks?” which appears in Volume CXI, Issue 9 on The Spectator.)