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Back to the Basics: Financial Literacy and Civic Engagement

By Nathan Rothstein

I remember the moment I couldn’t be in high school anymore. It was the fall of my senior year, and my peers and I were doing the minimal amount of work possible in order to best prepare for college applications. The learning was over, and now it was simply busy work required to pass the state course credit regulations. My parents observed the way I would  come home physically and emotionally drained, so we came up with a solution. At Lexington High School, only four credits were needed to graduate entering senior year, so technically one could leave after the first semester. And just like that, I left. In the spring semester, I took the History of Mexico and the History of the United State since 1945 at Suffolk. It was a pretty nice arrangement, and looking back, I have no idea how I got away with it. I took one class a day and came back for high school track. I was able to get college credits, learn what college courses were like, and not have to spend a majority of my time watching the clock tick away.

Ten years after my escape from high school, my generation faces a gloomy future. Almost once a week, The New York Times publishes an article analyzing the dire straits of generation Y, and the challenges it faces. One week it was the pipe dream of law schools. Law students are racking up six figures in debt, without a guarantee on a meaningful high paying job and the pension that comes with it. Another week, an article described how the “the best and the brightest” who headed to Wall Street now find themselves back at home, jobless, due to a first-in, first-out policy as the big firms shrink. This past week Adam Davidson wrote about what the people at Occupy protests already recognize: the social contract is over. “It used to be that if you worked hard, you were guaranteed a certain kind of life. There are reasons success is no longer a straight shot.” The average Gen Y person has $25,000 in college debt, and only one in five of us have a job.

The status quo is not working. Many high schools are not preparing students for college and/or financial success. When students drop out of school now, they are most likely going to end up being the financial responsibility of the federal and state government. I am proposing a different way for our country to do post-secondary education. It may not work for everyone, but we need to start the conversation somewhere.

Let’s start with the junior year of high school. This is an intense year when academic rigor increases. My U.S. history teacher helped me find my passion by encouraging me to learn the stories (and learn about the character) of the people who built this country. I learned the facts, and I learned how to research, develop, and put together my own arguments. I was lucky to have a great teacher, but in other subjects like math and science that were more challenging, I struggled. While it was important for me to be taking math, at the minimum I should have been taught basic financial literacy. How does the stock market work? Why do companies sell shares? What does a bank do and how does it make money? What are mutual funds? What is the benefit of car and life insurance? What do I need to know about student loans? What’s the difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit? Our country expects us to know this stuff, and then when we run up credit cards, take out predatory loans and foreclose on our houses, it’s our fault.

For others, the math comes easy, but they never learn civics. At some point in school, we are given an overview of the functions of our government, but by the time we can vote, we are expected to spend our time focusing on getting into college. As we get ready to make a voting decision, this is the time when civics education is crucial. We need to know what decisions our local government makes compared to the federal. What’s the difference between Congress and the Senate? How does federal policy affect our daily lives? What role do the courts play? How does a law getting ratified? The list goes on, but like sex education we get a few of the basics and are expected to make the right decisions with limited information about the details.

Once we hear back from colleges in the fall of our senior year, or whether or not we even go to college, rather than spend six months watching the time pass, how about high school students go through an extensive financial literacy and civics program? Whatever occupation we choose, these skills are necessary. Let’s not just stay the course because of tradition. Let’s shift from a rigorous testing environment to set education on a new trajectory.

When I visited my sister in the fall of 2006 at Yale, I was amazed by the resources at her disposal. Every day an amazing leader would visit the school, and pass along wisdom to the future leaders of the world. It was hard for me to imagine myself really taking advantage of this at 18 and 19. I don’t think I was alone to not really know what I was doing in college during those first few years. I was learning, but could have used some more real world experience. For many, college is the next step on a path that seems to be set by someone else. For many others, college is not even an option. Something has to give.

There are programs like Global Citizen Year, which gives high school graduates the opportunity to volunteer around the world. Students take a year off and come back more prepared to take advantage of resources at their school. Americorps programs like City Year give students the opportunity to do this work in American cities. We need more programs like this. The NBA makes players spend at least a year in college, while colleges should think about making it mandatory for students to spend a year volunteering before enrolling. There are many 18 year olds who are ready to begin a rigorous academic experience after high school, but this does not mean that they should not be exposed to the realities of a country that has real problems to fix.

If this shift happens, young people will show up for college more prepared, more focused and ready to build their skills. They will probably have already failed, learned from their mistakes, and be better able to deal with the stress of higher education.

I’d go further to say the undergraduate experience should not be more than two years. After two years, students will have a B.A. They will be 21 or 22, and then they can sign up for a new kind of service to our country by joining a program that will have them teaching financial literacy and civics to high school students. For two months, these recent grads can attend an intensive financial literacy and civics training session. As part of the program they can learn teaching strategies. Upon completion, let’s deploy the new ‘experts’ as instructors around the country. For a year or two, these instructors can go and help other young people become active members of society.

After finishing this service, recent grads might enter into a trade school or an apprenticeship. For every year that they do a program like Americorps, their higher education is heavily subsidized—not just a $5,000 stipend as it is today. The best way to learn 21st Century skills—thinking critically, analyzing data quickly, interacting with diverse groups of people—is to go out and do it all everyday.

Let’s face it, our education system no longer works. Students are dropping out at record pace, and even if they make it through, they are in debt, and usually don’t have the skills that can get them decent-paying meaningful jobs. We have a school to prison or debt pipeline. Too many people are either behind bars or are figuratively locked up with debt and have no way of getting out. Only bold, revolutionary thinking will get us out of it. As Thomas Friedman said, “that used to be us.” We were the ones who built a society where every returning soldier had the opportunity to make their lives better for their kids. They came back from a war in Europe with money for school and a house. Now they come back from the Middle East with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and no job prospects. Let’s get back the basics by taking on the responsibility of preparing young people to become financially independent, civically and socially-conscious adults, able to make their own way in the world.

Nathan Rothstein himself is on a long windy path to success. He spent four years working on recovery projects in New Orleans, is an active member of the Boston entrepreneurship community, and now works at the DailyFeats. Nathan has been featured in The Boston Globe, USA Today, NECN, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune for his work. He has presented workshops on the subject of how young people can make a social impact at Yale, UMass-Amherst, Howard, MIT, Harvard, and Tulane University. He also volunteers at Charlestown High School with the Build program and is on the Public Policy committee for the Jewish Community Relations Council. Learn more at nathanrothstein.com.

3 Responses to Back to the Basics: Financial Literacy and Civic Engagement

  1. Aaron Gerry on December 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    Enjoyed the article and the pragmatic approach you have outlined for altering higher education through experiential learning. Funny, I recently responded to a survey from my high school and my main points of emphasis were to provide real world experience and financial literacy.

    In regards to education, I am a firm believer that you learn best by doing. Put another way, a well-rounded education involves experiential learning; coupling theory in the context of what you know with real world practice.

    I also like how your model provides visceral experiences. Financial literacy and civic engagement can be little more than abstract concepts unless they are directly relevant to your life. Actually living frugally with Americorps for a year is a much better teacher about cashflow and debt management than reading a case study. Perhaps most importantly, doing expands your frame of reference and exposes you to the reality that there is a ton of stuff you didn’t even know you didn’t know. This then opens up a whole new can of worms as it creates an environment of self-directed learning.

    I find a lot of the idea’s relevant to the non-profit I work for, the Family Independence Initiate, a national center for anti-poverty innovation. FII invests directly in people’s strengths and initiative by putting the power of choice and control in their hands. The working poor families decide what their goals are and how to make them happen with support from other families in their community. They make the choices and ultimately create their own paths out of poverty.

    In any event, I enjoyed the article and appreciate your work with DailyFeats and Swellr. Would love to talk further! Take care.


    – Aaron

  2. Chet Ensign on December 13, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Nathan, great article. I’m 60 now but I still have vivid memories of my early struggle.

    You have great points about programs that could be helping high school students make the transition to their own life. I would love to see those happen but I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, I take two ideas from your article that could help.

    First, learn how the world really works. Not how they say it works on paper – how it really works. If the schools won’t teach you that, set out to learn it yourself. You have the two key topics: finance and civics.

    Second, there is always going to be news stories about how bad things are. Bad news sells newspapers and gets viewers. So stop reading the news for a couple of years. Stop reading the articles that kill your optimism, enthusiasm and hope for the future. There is always something that needs to be done somewhere and if you don’t get paid for it initially then volunteer. It will look good on your resume, you’ll get positive reinforcement and the world will be that much better for what you have done. Nothing so dire that you absolutely positively have to know about it is likely to happen and if it does, you’ll see the smoke. The world will still be waiting once you get back.

    Lastly, your thought that ‘college seems like the next step on a path set by someone else.’ I have spent most of my work life in jobs that didn’t exist when I graduated from high school. I’ve pretty much made life up as I’ve gone along and the people I most admire have pretty much done the same. Don’t look at the world like it’s a peg board and try to shape yourself to fit one of the holes; look at the world like it’s a lump of clay and try to turn it into something more to your liking.

    I hope your ideas can translate into realities. Reading articles like this keeps me positive.



  3. Rich Riker on December 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm


    Interesting perspectives. I could not agree more that our current educational system is no longer fulfilling its obligation to society. The model is dated and is derived from an economic and societal perspective that is over 100 years old. This piece from Sir Kenneth Robinson is an interesting historical take – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U. To me, i look at it this way. If you were going to build an educational system from scratch, would it look like this? We both seem to think no.

    We have gotten away from the purpose of an education, which is to educate and provide our youth with a set of tools to assist them throughout their lives. Your points about having different likes, ability’s and interests is often forgotten. We teach to the crowd, not the individual. We teach from the top down, not locally up. We teach to a definition of success that does not often apply to the majority of our students.

    Your thoughts on changing the length of time for attaining a degree, incorporating civics, financial literacy, creating newer more practical degree types and rewarding and encouraging giving back to the community are spot on.

    Different degree types, entrepreneurship, flexibility in obtaining an education as well as rethinking the financial costs of secondary education also need to be addressed. Lastly, there needs to also be a corresponding change in the way we educate our young children as well as provide educational opportunities for our work force. The historical impact of education on a society is well documented. We need to execute better as a society.

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