In the months leading up to their first year, undergraduates will hear several not-so-glorious bits about the ‘glorious’ college years that await them. They’ll learn about the clichéd—yet inevitable—‘Freshman 15,’ they’ll be warned of the self-sabotage that is an 8:30 a.m. lecture, and likely, they’ll be introduced to a persona we all know too well: The broke college student. While it is difficult to adjust to a lifestyle of instant foods and early mornings, financial security requires more than just adjustment. Making responsible financial decisions requires long-term fiscal savviness. Educators have suggested implementing mandatory personal finance courses in undergraduate curricula, but in reality, financial education needs to start years before university does.
In a society where at least a Bachelor’s degree is required for most professional careers, one would think that there would be a greater focus on teaching youth how to manage realities like tuition payment timelines and student loans. Given that the average student debt of a Canadian graduate is over $25,000, and that, according to a 2015 U.S. Bureau and Labor Statistics study, there is a correlation between high student debt and early-adulthood mental illness, it’s time that youth are given resources to take finance into their own hands. Climbing tuition rates paired with a lack of education on how to pay them mean that students will experience the dreaded effects of this burden long into earning a salary. By gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to make financially responsible decisions sooner rather than later, students develop the essential foundations needed to adapt to the continuous challenges in managing their personal finances.
To develop lifelong literacy in such a complex field, students must begin their financial education well before university. Every single elementary school student in Canada learns basic equations and simple phrases within the first few years of schooling, giving them the ability to build on these concepts in future years. Financial skills that can be applied to almost every individual’s situation should be treated the same way.
It is not sufficient to teach today’s youth how to add together two paycheques, and then tell them to find a job and start saving. Educators need to use these mathematical foundations to teach children the hard skills of applying their calculations to real-life situations, such as the withdrawal of student loans, along with soft skills such as negotiation and risk-analysis. Furthermore, a 2011 Statistics Canada study shows that there is a visible correlation between time devoted to financial literacy education and future annual income. The benefits of basic finance education live on for years after the teaching ends.
Even with all the benefits of an early financial education, there remain critics of teaching financial literacy at all. The reason cited most often is that economic policy, rather than the individual, makes the ultimate decision when it comes to a person’s financial state. Though these critics raise the valid point that policy shapes the overall financial health of a population, financial savviness continues to be the ultimate way to gain an edge over those subject to the same policies. Additionally, continuing to teach financial literacy in a world dominated by multiple financial institutions allows individuals to become engaged in the political economy—recognizing the institutions that work best for them while combating hidden fees.
In a rapidly advancing society, understanding personal finance is more important than ever. A comprehensive financial background will benefit Canadian university students’ fiscal and corresponding mental health, career prospects, and overall well-being. It’s time that Canada’s school boards begin to embrace and promote long-term financial literacy.