November 26, 2008 - (by Steve Rosen, The Kansas City Star, Kansas City, MO) -- The best offense is a good defense. As I mull over the billions of tax dollars being spent to clean up the subprime mortgage mess, I keep thinking there must be a better way to put those financial resources to work.
My suggestion: Redirect part of that money into educational programs to teach the younger generation about adjustable-rate mortgages, credit cards, investing and other financial skills.
It may not be the American way, but I think it's far better to prevent the problem than to try to fix it after the damage has been done. And while it may be difficult to prove, I think exposing students to financial education before they graduate from high school will save society money in the long run from the likes of credit card woes, bankruptcies and family stress brought on by money issues.
With the proper money habits, perhaps more children will be able to weather their generation's financial storm -- be it another mortgage bubble, a crisis in student loan debt, health care, Social Security and on and on.
There is no shortage of financial education resources aimed at students, some of it free. Programs range from stock market games and other interactive Web teaching tools to school or communitywide programs that encourage children to save their coins and deposit them in a bank account.
One problem, however, is that many schools, organizations and parents lack the time and training to take advantage of the wealth of financial information. Imagine what just a little bit of mortgage bailout money could do to solve this problem.
Many organizations are doing a first-rate job of teaching children money smarts. Here are a few examples of great programs:
The Family Resource Center in Gorham, N.H., uses books and music produced by financial literacy advocate Sam Renick (alias Sammy the Rabbit) to teach young children from low-income families about money and "living in the material world," said Judy Woodward, the group's family literacy director.
"The children really love it," Woodward said, "and the hope is that we can begin to impact their financial lives before they become immersed in the downward spiral of spending more than is available." Next up for Woodward: develop a mentor program of high school students who work with elementary school students to help them learn good financial habits.
Working in Support of Education launched a comprehensive personal finance course for New York City high school students in 2003. Today, the program is taught in more than 20 states, said David Anderson, the group's executive vice president.
Program graduates earn the Certified as Financially Literate designation. One of those graduates, said Anderson, recently received a $4 per hour raise at her job when the manager learned of her certification. Last year, Working in Support of Education received the U.S. Treasury Department award for excellence in financial education.
The 100-year-old New England College of Finance in Boston is preparing to roll out an online "Financial Literacy 101" course this fall aimed at high school juniors and seniors and first-year college students. Participants who take the five-week course can earn up to three hours of college credit.
"Young people have gotten into credit card debt at such an alarming rate over the last five years," said Paula Bramante, the college's vice president of e-learning. "We're focusing on the youth of today to make sure they learn about money before they go off to college."
Take Charge America, which operates an educational institute at the University of Arizona, has spent more than $8 million to support financial literacy, highlighted by a "Family Economics and Financial Education" curriculum for high school students. The online program has been used by about 11,000 teachers.
Of course, spending more on financial education or requiring financial education courses in high school may not be enough.
Some will use the knowledge, some will not. Likewise, no classroom course can totally prepare a teenager to avoid all financial pitfalls.
But, noted Woodward, "if we don't take action to change the way children handle and view money, we will someday find ourselves in a world run by people who have no concept of financial responsibility."
Financial education can be a powerful tool.