College Students Fail When It Comes to Financial Literacy

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By Chris Metinko

NEW YORK -- If learning how to save and master financial literacy is something people should learn young -- the future may be bleak.

A study looking at what first-year college students know about finances shows most can only answer about a third of general financial questions correctly. The questions -- ranging from topics like the right amount of money to set aside in case of a financial emergency, to how long a late payment remains on your credit history -- were part of the "Money Matters on Campus" survey sponsored by education finance site Higher One and education technology site EverFi.

"The results of the survey are disappointing, but not unexpected," said Tom Arnold, professor of finance at the University of Richmond. "Most money habits come from experience and example. Incoming freshman are not very experienced and have more than likely relied on their parents for financial guidance and financial support."

"Consequently, prior to college, many students do not have to budget their money nor be concerned about paying off debt," he added.

While not knowing the correct answers to questions is one thing, actual risky financial behaviors are much worse. The research showed 12 percent of first-year students at four-year schools do not check their account balances because they are "too nervous," and only 39 percent use a budget.

The study also found while students were more financially literate if they took financial literacy courses in high school, those that had checking accounts were even more so. Also, students attending two-year schools proved to be slightly more knowledgeable -- possibly because they may have a higher degree of personal financial knowledge due to their "age, financial experience and general lifestyle differences," the study suggested.

Kelly Gardner, a 21-year-old senior at San Diego State, said experiences have contributed most to her financial development. Ten months ago she started work at a public relations firm, which has given her even greater insight into the financial habits and missteps of college students.

"I am not the standard when it comes to college students and financial habits," she said. "I began investing my money when I was a senior in high school and have become knowledgeable about investing through my own trials and errors, and now through the experience of my clients."

She added her ability to manage finances has come specifically from the advice of her parents and clients.

"Unfortunately, I cannot credit my public school education for any of my financial knowledge and skills," Gardner said.

The lack of schooling around money and finances doesn't come as a surprise to Gary Herman, president of the non-profit

"It's amazing that our educational system prepares young adults for math, reading, science, sex education and more, but it doesn't prepare them for the one thing that they'll be forced to make life-changing decisions on -- money," Herman said.

He added the burden of educating kids on finances falls on the parents.

"It all starts at home," Herman said. "And that's OK, because there are tons of free resources to help parents." He added that the Internet has made it easier than ever to find detailed information on budgeting for college students, smart spending tips and college loans.

"It's just a matter of placing a high priority on financial education and respecting money," Herman said. "Parents need to have 'the talk' about finances. Most talk with their kids about the birds and the bees, and let's face it, that's uncomfortable. But when it comes to money, mostly silence."

While everyone agrees good financial habits are important, Arnold said educating kids about finance is just like having a proper diet -- it is just too easy to ignore it until it becomes a problem.

"Given the general lack of savings for retirement and for unexpected needs by many households, college students do not really have very good examples to follow either," he added.

-Written by Chris Metinko for MainStreet.
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