Sara Merken:GW should require a personal finance class

The looming thought of entering the real world post-graduation is generally shoved to the back of our minds until the last possible moment.

The minute we graduate, managing personal finances, paying off student debt and making smart investments become our main focus – whether we plan to get a job or continue school. But in reality, many of us aren’t equipped to handle these financial decisions, and that’s scary.

Millennials have inadequate financial knowledge, are anxious about student loans and are unhappy with their current financial condition, according to a report released this month from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center.

It sounds serious, but GW could easily combat this problem. Introducing a mandatory personal finance course for all undergraduates would lay the groundwork for students’ financial decision-making after graduation, and allow for a less daunting transition into the workforce.

Only 24 percent of millennials – people ages 18 to 35 – who participated in the study had basic financial knowledge about concepts surrounding mortgages and numeracy, according to the report. Similarly, only 8 percent of participants had what was considered high financial literacy on complex topics like risk diversification, inflation and asset pricing.

But learning to manage finances is critically important because two-thirds of all the respondents in the study had at least one source of long-term debt. Americans now owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and two-thirds of that debt is held by people older than 30, meaning a course like this could go a long way in making it easier for future generations to manage their debt.

The report also found that more than a quarter of participants had sought out advice on how to save and invest money. It’s clear this is something that many college students would want to learn about.

While some of us may manage our student loans or expenses during college, this experience is limited, and a class would help us prepare more. In the course, students should learn a variety of topics like establishing a 401(k), managing a budget and saving for retirement.

Annamaria Lusardi, the academic director of the center that produced the report, said the best course would prepare students “to be able to make financial decisions.”

“Personal finance and making good financial decisions has to do with putting young people on a path of stability,” she said.

Five of GW’s 14 peer schools – Duke, Emory, Boston, Southern Methodist universities and Washington University in St. Louis – already provide personal finance courses that include setting financial goals and learning the economic background behind strategies to achieve them. Unfortunately, these universities do not require students to take the course. But simply having the option is an improvement over what’s available at GW. It would be especially important for this class to be available to freshmen as a G-PAC so that they could get a head start on their personal finance education.

“A freshman who understands personal finances will be better equipped to avoid debt accumulation throughout college,” said Shannon Schuyler, a principal and U.S. corporate responsibility leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which co-sponsored the report.

Schuyler said a mandated finance course for college students would also strengthen the workforce in the future. Millennials comprise more than one-third of today’s labor force, surpassing the amount of any other generation in the American workforce.

While it isn’t necessarily GW’s responsibility to teach us how to manage our finances, it is GW’s responsibility to make sure we are ready to enter the real world.

“The University is going to do better if it has students which are more financially fit, which do not suffer from financial distress. There will be happier students and better alumni, as well,” Lusardi said.

The time we spend in college is the last chance we have to learn about the real world before heading out into it. While it seems like a pain to add yet another requirement to the list of courses students have to take at GW, this one would be worth the time – and the money.

Sara Merken, a junior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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