Jenny Resnick, who teaches accounting and personal finance courses at Santa Monica College (SMC), was shocked to hear her daughter – a recent college graduate – say that her contemporaries consider themselves "the generation of despair; the American dream is not alive [for them]."
SMC Associate Professor of Accounting Ming Lu, hears students bemoan the costs of their education but notices that they're wearing expensive clothing and carrying the latest gadgets.
Eleni Hioureas, vice-chair of SMC's English Department – who made similar observations – found out by using a "problem-solution" essay assignment in her basic skills English classes, that most of her students faced dire financial concerns.
They all wanted to understand why so many students lacked knowledge of how to manage their money, and they shared a concern about how this would impact their students' futures.
A National Crisis
With $1.2 trillion burden in student debt and 17 percent of borrowers behind in payments or in default – and students unaware that the interest on their credit cards could sink them before they even get started in life – these professors sought a way to help.
Students told them they had no idea how to budget or save. Many who receive free tuition and a $5000 Federal Pell grant – to offset school and living expenses when supplemented with a part-time job – spent the money instead on luxury goods, an understandable temptation for those who may not have been able to afford them.
Small Steps Toward a Big Change
After receiving the Bill and Carol Ouchi Chair of Excellence Award for Business from the SMC Foundation, Lu put his grant to work seeking collaborators in other SMC academic departments to help integrate financial literacy into basic skills classes.
Partnering with Hioureas in English and math professor Quyen Phung, Lu reviewed a list of books appropriate for students with limited math skills and asked Hioureas to match them with her students' reading skills, which can range from 3rd to 12th grade levels.
Three semesters after she began this project, Hioureas today designs much of her curriculum around financial literacy, with readings, homework and essay assignments designed to get students thinking about their short, medium and long-range financial goals while improving their English skills. A group of English instructors are joining her in the effort, and some math instructors have added financial literacy-based problems to their regular instruction.
In 2013, California enacted AB 166, mandating that high school students receive financial literacy training before graduating. In 2014, the California Community College Chancellor's Office launched a financial literacy campaign with a free online course available to all community college students.
Inspired by these initiatives, Resnick began reaching out to campus groups that might not ordinarily take her personal finance classes, including Black Collegians, the Veterans Success Center and this spring, the Adelante Program. She organizes an Activity Hour workshop with free pizza and a drink, then engages the students in a simple exercise calculating the value of money over time.
Imagine realizing for the first time that if you stopped paying $16 a day for two packs of cigarettes, in 50 years the money you saved, properly invested, could be worth a million dollars thanks to the magic of compound interest. For most students, it's an eye-opener.
Rocking Financial Literacy
Resnick stumbled across a Wall Street Journal article about the "coolest financial advisor", a popular rock band called GOODING that offers a financial literacy concert.
On Thursday, March 3, GOODING made their California community college debut to a full house at SMC's Main Stage. After playing rock and roll, the lead singer Gooding (the band's namesake) used personal anecdotes and real-world examples – including several celebrities – to reveal myths about money, deflate the hype of overnight success, and show students simple steps and activities that can help them manage today's money to make tomorrow's dream come true.
Lu has posted class materials and curriculum outlines for math and English classes – developed in collaboration with other SMC professors – at smc.edu/businessCOE. They want to make financial literacy easy to achieve, with lessons available free of charge to instructors at SMC, other community colleges and even high schools – giving students the information they need to help secure their futures.