The Elbert files: Is math key to financial literacy?
Friday, May 03, 2013 7:00 AM
A recent Harvard Business School study concluded that high school math classes have more impact on individual financial success than financial literacy courses.
That finding can be interpreted several ways. My first thought was that our math skills are now so bad that we need to learn basic arithmetic before taking financial literacy courses on investing, borrowing or buying insurance.
But that’s not really what the study was saying.
The real problem is the lack of support for and consistency of financial education programs, said Tahira Hira, Iowa’s premier financial literacy expert, who holds dual positions at Iowa State University as professor of personal finance and as a senior policy adviser to President Steven Leath.
The Harvard study uses household financial information from the 2000 Census Long Form to reach the conclusion that “there is little evidence that education intended to improve financial decision-making is successful.”
High school personal finance courses, it says, “have no effect on financial outcomes.” But, it adds, “additional training in mathematics leads to greater financial market participation, more investment income and better credit management, including less bankruptcy and fewer foreclosures.”
The Harvard study notes that it is difficult to control a lot of the variables that can affect financial literacy studies, including the economy in general or the family backgrounds of participants. In fact, it says that earlier studies confirming the value of financial literacy courses contained such flaws.
I’m not so sure that a new study wouldn’t find the same problems with the Harvard study. Hira seemed to agree, saying that over the years she has read many financial literacy studies that turned out to be flawed.
The real problem, she said, is the lack of consistency in financial literacy programs and a shortage of properly trained teachers.
With no agreed upon standards and a shortage of teachers, she said, it is unfair “to relate that to adult behavior and conclude this was because they didn’t learn anything in high school.”
Hira provided one insight I hadn’t expected.
For the last decade or two, she said, diverging theories about financial literacy have come from and-grant universities, like ISU, and Ivy League schools, like Harvard.
The land-grant schools tend to focus on practical applications based on 150 years of work aimed at helping farms and households, she said.
The interest of Ivy League schools is more recent and more theoretical. It comes from the schools’ recognition of the role that individual decision-making played in helping inflate and then burst recent financial bubbles.
In fact, the Harvard study begins: “The recent financial crisis has focused a spotlight on household financial decision-making, with many policy-makers arguing that poor financial decision-making exacerbated the crisis with borrowers taking out mortgages they could not repay.”
Hira said she is puzzled by Harvard’s focus on math as a solution.
“Math has been with us all along,” she said. “What’s new about that?”
Most personal finance decisions require only simple arithmetic skills, Hira said. “It’s not calculus,” she said. “It’s not the predictive models we develop in higher mathematics.”
“If mathematics was the solution, the basic level of financial illiteracy that we see should have been eradicated a long time ago,” she said.
Efforts like the new Harvard study end up doing more damage than good, because they needlessly divert the conversation, Hira said.
The problem with teaching financial literacy in high school, college or workplaces, she said, is that it only works when people believe in it and use what they learn.
“We are a long way from believing in it,” she said. “But once we believe in it, we will stop playing games and we will do it.”
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