McHenry County schools aim to make the grade on consumer education

National report gives Illinois B+ for financial literacy in high schools

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CRYSTAL LAKE – Joe Jauch has seen what money can do to the mind of a high school student.

Sometimes juniors and seniors walk into his consumer education course at Crystal Lake Central School set on one career. But by the time they learn what it costs to get the degree and what they can expect to earn after graduation, they’re headed in a different direction.

“They might realize, ‘I thought I wanted to do this, but I don’t want to live in a $200 a month studio apartment in somebody’s basement,’” Jauch said. “They have some really neat epiphanies.”

The epiphanies come courtesy of classes that help fulfill the state requirement that students have at least nine weeks of consumer education before graduation. In McHenry County, the amount of consumer education required, as well as the method in which those lessons are delivered, vary by school district.

Regardless of the method, the length of time students spend learning about bills, loans and other financial realities of adulthood was enough to earn Illinois a high grade for consumer education.

The state received a “B+” on the 2015 National Report Card on State Efforts to Improve Financial Literacy in High Schools. Created by researchers at Champlain College in Vermont, the report grades each state on how much time students spend learning about personal finances. Illinois was one of 20 states to earn a “B.”

“The reason it needs to be there is that, with each passing generation, the complexity and the variety of financial world has increased,” said John Pelletier, the director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College.

Financial realities

For 67 percent of local students, their financial life will involve some college loan debt, if they follow the trend of other Illinois students, according to data from the Institute for College Access and Success. Their data found Illinois students graduating from college in 2014 had an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.

“I think young people don’t understand what is realistic income expectation,” Pelletier said. “And loans are basically an investment in that income.”

Back in Jauch’s classroom, students learn about the income expectations for a given career, which sometimes leads to a change of heart. He said they also delve into lessons about banking, insurance, budget management and consumer protections.

“By no means are they experts at that time, but they know enough to know what they feel comfortable with,” Jauch said.

At Huntley High School in District 158, students take a semester-long personal finance class sophomore year, teacher Jim Rolando said. Students learn about paying bills, checking accounts, income taxes, careers and loans, among other topics.

“I do think we’re doing as good a job as we can right now of getting high school kids a little bit of awareness of what’s going to be part of their real-life experience,” Ronaldo said.

In Johnsburg District 12, Curriculum Director Terie Engelbrecht is trying to figure out how to weave new topics such as identity theft and security and managing credit debt into the curriculum for the semester-long consumer education class seniors are required to take.

Looking beyond the classroom

At Woodstock District 200, high school students can either take a semester-long consumer education or economics course. They also have the option of taking AP economics courses that span the entire year. Students typically fulfill their requirement sophomore year and beyond, said George Oslovich, the assistant superintendent of curriculum for middle and high school students.

While personal finance is woven into these courses, he said many lessons about student loans or salary projects are delivered outside the classroom.

“I think the best thing we can do with consumer ed and the financial piece is to try and make it as real-time for the student as possible,” Oslovich said. “When you are sitting down and filling out the financial aid form, that becomes more real than the conversation I had as a sophomore.”

Some schools also offer cooperative education program that allow students to work part time and take a class for credit.

Trey Darnell, a 17-year-old senior at Huntley High School, works about 15 to 20 hours a week at Mathnasium in Algonquin as part of his school's co-op program. He said the program made him realize he wants to be a financial analyst, and gave him some insight into what life will be like after he graduates.

“I feel like I have a leg up on my classmates,” Darnell said. “Not only has it helped me learn how to balance my checkbook and keep a budget, but it’s taught me how to be professional.”