Thanks to NGPF Fellow Karl Remsen, a math and personal finance teacher at Lake County High School in Leadville, Colorado for his inspired words and actions in his school community. He took this a step further and had an op-ed advocating financial education for all in his local paper, the Mountain Mail.
In 2017, Lake County High School reviewed and revamped our graduation requirements. As part of this process, we became one of the only schools in Colorado to require a semester-long personal finance course of every student to graduate. The class of 2020 will be our first class graduating under the new requirements, and every single student will have taken and passed an entire semester of financial education!
Our district made this change because it is our belief that providing financial education to our students, 70% of whom are on free or reduced lunch and 50% of whose parents did not graduate high school, is a form of social justice. What drives me as an educator in a small, rural school with high poverty is to do everything I can to make sure that my students have the same chance as their counterparts growing up in more affluent zip codes. Teaching personal finance to every student, no matter their background or previous knowledge, is how I can ensure that they all graduate ready for whatever future they choose.
The course covers checking, saving, investing, taxes, credit and debt, insurance, and budgeting. The students learn the personal finance lessons from the past, such as the envelope system for budgeting and how to write a check. They also learn about 21st century personal finance tools, such as peer-to-peer payments (think of CashApp & Venmo) or robo-advisors for low-cost investment options (such as Betterment & Wealthfront). We discuss who should take out a life insurance policy, research ways to cut down on grocery expenses, brainstorm all the ways an emergency fund is useful, debate about the risks and benefits of an 18-year old getting a credit card, and so much more!
If you observed my class, you’d notice the amount of time that students spend talking about personal finance topics. You’d see students sharing personal opinions on whether 18-year olds should buy a new car and what the costs of doing so would be. You’d hear students passionately debating about debt repayment plans during a role-play on working with creditors. Students consistently ask questions of me and each other. I encourage them to continue asking questions and talking about money, even when they’re done with this course. I view all the open discourse in my class as just the foundation and the beginning of a lifetime of discussing, learning, and sharing lessons about money.
As one of my students said in a recent reflection, “It is arguably the most important class that we as students have taken. It has prepared us for the struggles of taxes, loans, managing finances, etc. I believe all of us are that much more prepared for adult life and I think everyone deserves this knowledge and the opportunity to learn about this topic.”
A month ago, I had a student tell me that she had just filed her taxes on her own. She did it using a free app that she learned about during our taxes unit, and she had also been able to explain to her doubtful mother why it was a good idea for her to file as a teenager. That’s exactly what I envisioned when I advocated for the course to become a graduation requirement: empowering students with the knowledge and confidence to forge their own path in the financial world.
I invite every high school that isn’t yet requiring a full semester of personal finance for graduation to join us in expanding access to this critical education. Together, we can achieve Mission: 2030.
Karl Remsen is a math and personal finance teacher at Lake County High School in Leadville, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.