NORTH KINGSTOWN – On Tuesday, the North Kingstown School Committee, administrators and one invested high schooler discussed the feasibility of making financial literacy a public school requirement. The discussion involved high school principal Barbara Morse, teacher Rich Garland and high school senior Lauren McEwan. 

The presentation was kicked off by McEwan, who has used her senior project to advocate for making financial literacy a mandatory course for all high schoolers. McEwan said that the lack of knowledge that students have regarding financial literacy was a “widespread problem.”

“I’m a senior at North Kingstown High School and I’ve been using my senior project to advocate for making a mandatory financial literacy class. I think it’s a really widespread problem, the lack of knowledge that students have when they graduate,” McEwan said. “And whether that’s college, the workforce or the military, I think it’s really important that everyone has the same opportunity to have a strong foundation to manage their own finances when they graduate.”

According to McEwan’s presentation, students who do not have a strong understanding of financial literacy are more likely to make poor decisions relating to loans or credit cards, causing significant damage to their financial future. Economic growth is also further stymied, given the burden of high debt owned by Rhode Island college graduates–the second highest in the country with an average of roughly $36,000.

“Currently, student debt in the entire country is $1.4 trillion, and Rhode Island holds $4.4 billion,” McEwan added. “Rhode Island is one of only 14 states that doesn’t have a requirement for graduation to either take personal finance or personal wealth, or something along those lines.” 

And with crowded and complex numbers of financial offerings, lower levels of financial literacy can result in higher use of predatory financial services. 

Rhode Island is also ranked ninth nationally for the highest delinquency rates, specifically related to mortgage loans. And in states that require courses in financial literacy–such as Texas and Georgia–studies have shown increased credit scores and lower delinquency across the board. 

“I really think that a personal finance course as a requirement would be really relevant to all students,” McEwan concluded. 

Garland, who was named Financial Literacy Educator of the Year by treasurer Seth Magaziner, began his portion of the presentation by discussing his work at the state level with Magaziner and education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green. 

“Since becoming financial educator of the year, I’ve been tied to the treasurer’s office, and now the commissioner,” Garland said. “I thought it would be a good idea to take you through the timeline and then get to the point in terms of where the state is, relative to the treasurer and the commissioner coming together.”

Garland went through the recent history of trying to make financial literacy a public school requirement, beginning with Magaziner initiating the first quarterly Financial Empowerment Exchange in 2017, which provides an opportunity for leaders from high schools, nonprofits and banks to network and share ideas. 

 While the Financial Empowerment Exchange was the impetus to move forward with an act that would make financial literacy mandatory in Rhode Island, the bill, Securing Financial Future for all Students Act, failed to pass the senate. 

However, soon after, Infante-Green announced her support of the initiative, though she said she would rather see financial literacy as a requirement develop organically throughout the state, rather than being driven by the government. 

“Her preference is to make it organic as opposed to a bill being pushed out by the Statehouse,” Garland said. “It’s a good thing to do.”

Earlier this month, two workgroups were formed, with both setting their sights on financial literacy as a requirement in Rhode Island schools. The two groups are called Educator Preparedness Strategy, of which Garland is a member, and Student Outcomes Equity. 

Morse concluded the presentation by discussing how financial literacy as a requirement could be implemented at the high school. 

“We looked at the standards for each of the courses to determine which courses we would use as an eligibility for fulfilling this requirement,” Morse said. 

The three courses at the high school that could apply for a financial literacy requirement, Morse said, would be personal finance and investment, personal wealth management and consumer math. 

Approximately 305 students would already meet the requirements based on existing courses, however, the estimated enrollment for the class of 2024 is roughly 380. The high school, therefore, would have to create 75 additional spots the courses in order to meet the proposed financial literacy requirement. 

Morse said spots could be opened up if students who have already taken personal finance and investment weren’t allowed to take personal wealth management, making room for more students. 

And per new regulations, Morse added, students can use one course to meet more than one graduation requirement. For example, consumer math could meet both fourth-year math course and the financial literacy requirement. 

“They’re now able to double up on credits,” she said. “They could be completing a math-related credit while also completing the financial literacy requirement at the same time.” 

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