Student-loan debt has topped $1 trillion in the United States, surpassing credit-card and automobile loans, yet most Americans lack the skills to make educated decisions about money.
A report released last month by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission found that Americans have a "weak grasp of elementary financial concepts" such as compound interest and inflation.
In Ohio, some educators, business leaders, and others say such sobering assessments and grim statistics make a strong case for requiring high-school students to take a class in financial literacy before graduating.
"Clearly we are going in the wrong direction," said Rob Hovis, a financial adviser and member of the state board of education. "Public education is failing the citizenry by not graduating students with enough financial management, knowledge, and skills to manage their own money."
Mr. Hovis wants financial literacy to be a required half-credit, one-semester course in Ohio high schools. Next week, at the board's monthly meeting, he will urge the panel to consider making such a recommendation to state lawmakers, who have control over changes to the required curriculum.
"Part of the current recession we are in, the banking problems, can be attributed to the fact that too many Americans could not make sound financial decisions, particularly with mortgage loans," Mr. Hovis said.
Ohio recently joined 23 states that require personal finance to be integrated into other required courses. Beginning with the class of 2014, Ohio schools must weave into social studies or another class concepts including budgeting and interest rates. Only four states -- Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia -- require students to take a semester course in financial literacy.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce also will encourage lawmakers to add Ohio to that list.
"As far as our agenda for the next legislative session, this is likely to be front and center in our education and work-force agenda," said Daniel Navin, assistant vice president in charge of tax and economic policy for the state chamber.
"Given the spectacular losses people have incurred on mortgages and given Ohio's prominence in the insurance industry and other financial sectors, we think it's a good thing for kids to have."
School leaders have concerns about additional graduation requirements in an already full school day and about the cost of hiring teachers experienced to teach financial literacy.
"I don't know that anybody can say it's a bad idea, but it begs the question: 'What will schools have to eliminate?' " asked Richard C. Lewis, executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association.
He said schools are better served by the option of offering a dedicated class or integrating curriculum into other courses.
"We recommend a dedicated course at the high-school level worth half a credit," said Tom Rutan, associate director in the Ohio Department of Educations' Office of Curriculum and Assessment. "We believe strongly that formal instruction in personal finance will do a better job of preventing problems caused by predatory lending, credit-card debt, and foreclosures."
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