BIG RAPIDS, Mich. – There’s good news for credit unions working to boost member understanding of personal finance. More groups and states are gearing up to emphasize the need for such education. One example is in Michigan, where Ferris State University has just established a Center for Financial Education. Other centers will be located at Northern Michigan University, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State University and the University of Michigan at Dearborn. The new centers will be part of a nationwide program-delivery network of the National Council on Economic Education. Dr. Nancy Cooley, dean of the Ferris State College of Education and Human Services, says there is a strong need for financial literacy. “A national survey found, for example, that as many as two-thirds of adults and school-age children didn’t understand that in times of inflation their money doesn’t hold its value. They also had difficulty with the notion of incentives, and the fact that when incentives change people change their behavior. For instance, high gas prices would lead to people perhaps buying less gas,” Cooley notes. As an educator, Cooley suggests one-size-fits-all efforts may not work. One-on-one counseling tailored to the needs of the individual is ideal. “Sometimes a person going into a seminar will find maybe half of that content will fit what they need to learn,” she says. “The rest may help someone in the group, or noone in the group. We’re seeing a move from `just in case’ learning, where everything is presented just in case you might need it sometime, to `just in time’ learning which is right at the time individuals need it because something is important to them, and now to “just for you” learning. “I would think the focus should really be `just for you’ economic education that in some way assesses what the individual knows and what their gaps are, then provides assistance or resources for them to accomplish their goals.” She suggests some of the lesson plans available through the Center for Economic Education could be readily adapted for adult audiences, and she’d be glad to make them available to credit unions. David Dieterle at Walsh College is president of the Michigan Council for Economic Education. He indicates that in the past, efforts to boost economic literacy have focused on teachers who were then expected to carry the information into their classrooms. Now, Dieterle says, adult education is beginning to get attention. Is there any one method that works best with adults? “Anything is better than nothing,” he answers. “Information on a Web site, a cassette tape or in a booklet may help. Some people learn in a seminar. Others need to see it, feel it and do it. The wider the basis of delivery, the better the opportunity for an individual to learn.” In terms of quantity, Dieterle says, there is a lot of material available that can help. Some of it is good, some not so good. He encourages credit unions to continue serving their members by providing economic education, and by exploring materials available through groups such as the National Council on Economic Education and the Federal Reserve. In California, the state Department of Financial Institutions is highlighting the importance of financial literacy activities by state-chartered financial institutions. In addition to encouraging programs such as credit management and repair and homeownership counseling targeted at individuals, the department is also supporting programs aimed at providing small businesses with information on topics such as business checking accounts, credit lines and capital leases. Alana Fernandez Golden, spokeswoman for the DFI, says the department wants to become more than a regulatory agency. So there is a focus each month on a specific topic such as financial literacy for youth and outreach to small businesses. Golden says the agency has teamed up with national groups such as JumpStart and CUNA. “On our Web site and on our kids page we provide financial literacy links to some of these efforts,” she says. “Many of our financial institutions are already involved in community outreach. We were just trying to another message out to those who haven’t yet done that, or have thought about it but haven’t quite got their program up and running. We want to encourage them and let them know it’s something we’re doing here at the state level.” William Walstad, director of the National Center for Research in Economic Education at the University of Nebraska, emphasizes more and more people will have to be their own financial counselors, their own economists. One example is that if part of Social Security is privatized, people will need to make informed decisions about where that money goes. There’s good news and bad news, Walstad says. The good news is about 45% of high school students take an economics class, up substantially from 25% in the 1980. The bad news is, it’s not enough. Almost half of high school students still graduate without any solid course in economics. Some of those courses that are offered may not be well taught. “The best opportunity is when somebody is young. With adults, if they haven’t had that kind of exposure in high school or college, they’re going to have to learn it on their own. Education through hard knocks can be hard and costly,” Walstad declares. Economic education for adults “has to fit into people’s schedules, and it also has to be in short doses. We sometimes tend to overwhelm people. We try to do too much. We want to do at least enough to whet their appetites, let them see the value, then bring them back.” Walstad believes it’s a mistake for an organization such as a credit union to try to set up their own economic literacy program from scratch. He urges groups to tap resources such as local schools, the National Council on Economic Education and the 270 centers for economic education established throughout the country. -

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