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Shannon Schuyler

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Making Sense of Our Economic Uncertainty

Posted: 01/06/12 05:12 PM ET

2011 is behind us and we are entering 2012 with certainty and optimism. Yet, with bills to pay from a happy holiday, compounded with financial markets fluctuating daily, today's only certainty is that our financial future remains uncertain. That's why financial literacy is more important than ever.

A Depressing Back Story
Right now, though, our general understanding of finance scores a D -- as in dismal. The typical college senior, upon graduation, has already racked up more than $4,100 in credit card debt, reports a Sallie Mae study . A vast majority of students -- 84 percent of undergraduates in the same study -- recognize they need to learn more about managing their finances. Sixty-four percent of those respondents say they would have liked to participate in some type of formalized financial literacy program.

Parents who sent their kids off to college this year probably have asked or are asking themselves such questions as: Can I count on my son or daughter to be financially responsible while away from home? Does my child know how to balance a banking account or save money? Did I teach my child enough? Unfortunately, statistics suggest the answer is no.

This lack of financial smarts continues into adulthood. A June 2011 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that half of adults surveyed said they have trouble keeping up with monthly expenses and bills. And when given a basic set of questions on economics and finance in everyday life, fewer than 10 percent answered all questions correctly.

The New Reality
While society believes fiscal responsibility starts with individuals, we haven't given them the necessary tools to make smarter financial decisions. We want our children to understand the dismal economic condition of the country and how that plays out in their household, but at the same time we are still giving them holiday gifts and allowances with little oversight. We are continuing to contribute to an already flawed perception of reality. The old adage holds true even in these times: we cannot teach our children to fish without teaching them to reel in the line.

Some states are positioning themselves to address the problem head on by mandating financial literacy curriculum by the time of high school graduation. Thirteen states now require this type of training -- far less than the need to embrace this national crisis. Moreover, a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that more than half of teachers consider themselves unqualified to use their state's financial-education standards, and few (less than 20%) feel "very competent" lecturing a class on such topics such as risk management and debt.

Piecemeal legislation and teachers who have not been given the tools to teach create an imperative to solve this detrimental education gap. Corporations, nonprofits and private institutions can do something, however. They must join together and, collaboratively, bolster and supplement classroom offerings. Through our expertise and employee base, businesses can help provide access to tools and resources. We can train teachers to master the financial literacy curriculum. We can help students become financially literate. In essence, we can help close this chasm in our education system through bringing together financial literacy knowledge with education expertise.