Personal finance courses could fulfill grad requirement in Pa.

Eight employees from First Capital Federal Credit Union volunteered as financial advisors for Junior Achievement’s Real Life, a financial literacy program, on Feb. 21 at Red Lion Area High School. Pictured is Sue DeStephano, First Capital FCU president/CEO, with Red Lion seniors participating in the program.

Students in York County and across the state might soon have the option of personal finance courses counting toward graduation, thanks to a recent state Senate bill.

The bill would not make the course itself a requirement, but it would allow one personal finance credit to be applied to fulfilling requirements in social studies, family and consumer science, mathematics or business education.

"If this can help the next generation be a little more prudent and keep them out of either credit card or student loan debt, then it’s a big win for us," said bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie.

Senate Bill 723, which passed unanimously in the Pennsylvania State Senate on Sept. 23, is now in the House Education Committee, and committee member Mike Jones, R-York Township, is optimistic it will pass.

"There is a potentially slippery slope," Jones said, noting that he is supportive of this bill, but legislators should be careful about getting too involved in high school curriculum.

The former Dallastown Area school board member said it helped that the bill was not a mandate but rather affords schools flexibility to use finance courses as graduation requirements.

Mike Jones is a Republican member-elect for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

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West Shore School District is evaluating its graduation requirements now and plans to add personal finance, according to a statement by district spokeswoman Rhonda Fourhman, who added that the district  welcomes the flexibility of applying it to other subjects.

"It was a little bit of a surprise to me," Laughlin said of the overwhelming support in the Senate. He acknowledged not making it a mandate probably helped to win some over.

"That’s one of the big reasons that I’m okay with it," Jones said. "That helps get a lot of people across the line on things like this."

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, acknowledged that schools have more  requirements of what should be taught than ever before, so this bill is a way to provide an incentive, she said.

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Many York County high schools have personal finance or financial literacy courses in their 2019-20 course catalogs, though not all list them as a requirement. 

That's changing for some, such as Northern High School — which beginning with the class of 2022, will require students to take one of two classes with personal finance elements to graduate — one of which will count for math, and the other for a social studies credit.

The idea grew out of a meeting among  school representatives and community members held  two to three years ago. They determined that  financial literacy stood out as a skill essential for graduation, one that could benefit all students, said Principal Steve Lehman.

"Data is showing that student debt has grown exponentially," Phillips-Hill said. Though it will not solve the student loan crisis, knowing how to manage money will go a long way, she said.

"Unless you pay it off right away, you’re borrowing much more than you think you’re borrowing," Lehman said.

South Western High School Principal Keith Downs agreed, saying personal finance courses take on areas such as debt, car  loans and mortgages and would help students better understand the long-term impact of monthly loan payments.

South Western High School Commencement at the school in Hanover, Friday, May 31, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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The high school requires seniors to take personal finance but doesn't make it a credit required to graduate, Downs said, but the district would definitely be interested in doing so if the bill became law.

College and career readiness is an element of the Future Ready PA Index — a success evaluation tool instituted through the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2018 — and with that push, Downs expects more districts will start to add financial literacy as a graduation requirement.

Lehman remembers one student who had been considering a large investment in a top school, but it wasn't until taking the course that she realized there were better options for her. Her parents told Lehman they'd been having those conversations with her for months.

"That kind of stuff makes me feel like this was the right move," Lehman said, adding that having this information in course curriculum sometimes makes students more likely to use it than hearing it at home.