According to the Council for Economic Education, the number of states requiring public high schools to offer a personal finance course rose from 9 to 15 between 2007 and 2009. In fact, 13 of those states have made the course a graduation requirement, up from 7 in 2007. In these classes, students learn about spending and saving money, balancing a budget, and managing credit, along with various aspects of purchasing a home, including making a down payment and selecting a loan.
"[We need to ensure that] students graduate from high school with a better understanding of basic economics, basic finance, and the benefits and risks associated with debt," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
The increased focus on teaching personal finance to all high school students is a departure from models of the past, when many schools relegated the subject to a chapter of a home economics course—if they taught it at all.
"It was not seen as a necessary life skill," said Jim Hedemark, executive director of Rhode Island Jump Start Coalition, which promotes financial literacy among young people. "It was sort of seen as the kind of thing that should probably be learned in the home."
As a result, many students simply picked up the spending patterns of their parents—good and bad. Meanwhile, personal finance, from maintaining a credit card to purchasing a home, became more complicated.
"A good place to start...is the high school level. That's where younger people start to become more financially independent," said Senator Scott Frantz, who is pushing for legislation to require public high school students to learn about the basics of home mortgage lending and the pitfalls of accumulating debt.
In some schools, however, lessons in the pecuniary arts begin well before high school. John Doyle, an administrator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says that his district's social studies classes have an economics component at every grade level, including kindergarten, where lessons begin with discussing needs versus wants.
"You do things that are age-appropriate," Doyle said.
Squeezing a separate personal finance class into the curriculum can be a challenge, however, as schools focus on state and federal testing standards while dealing with budget constraints. As a result, many schools continue to teach