Americans don’t score well in financial literacy, and instruction in personal finance is limited in high school.
Americans don’t score well in financial literacy, and instruction in personal finance is limited in high school.

Being knowledgable about money management, budgeting and finance is no guarantee of success in life. But ignorance about such concepts often comes at great cost.

When it comes to financial literacy, however, the U.S. gets a failing grade at least by one count. The U.S. ranked 14th in a 2015 global study conducted by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Group and others, with a financial literacy rate of 57%.

One solution would be to have colleges require students to take a personal-finance course. Would that help? Two experts weigh in.

Annamaria Lusardi, Denit Trust chair of economics and accountancy at the George Washington University School of Business, argues that for people to survive and thrive in today’s financial environment, knowledge of personal finance is a necessity, and that requiring college students to take personal-finance courses begins to fill the gap. Lauren E. Willis, professor of law and Rains senior research fellow at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, looks at reasons why such courses shouldn’t be required, topped by what she says is a lack of evidence that they are effective.

By Annamaria Lusardi

Think about driving. To ensure orderly traffic, we create speed limits and roadway rules. We erect signs to warn where turns are difficult or roads are treacherous. And before we allow someone behind the wheel, we make sure they understand the basics. That’s where a driver’s license comes in. We take those precautions to protect the drivers and to protect others.

It is time to extend that type of thinking to financial knowledge by making personal finance a required course at U.S. colleges and universities. For people—especially young people—to survive and thrive in today’s financial environment, knowledge of personal finance is a necessity.

We’re already seeing what happens when young adults juggle high-impact financial decisions without the benefit of financial knowledge. Take the well-known burden of student-loan debt. Student loans are the second-largest part of the consumer credit market, after mortgages. The lion’s share of that debt sits in the hands of millennials—and our research shows they worry about their ability to pay off those loans. As well they should. The default rate on student loans is sobering.

Multiple studies confirm that students have little understanding of how student loans work. Our analysis of the latest National Financial Capability Study, or NFCS, finds that more than half of millennials take on student loans without even attempting to calculate what their payments will be. Given that student loans are pursued to acquire an education, it seems only prudent to have that education include the knowledge needed to manage that debt.

But student debt is just one of the challenges. These young people will have to support long retirements on savings and investments managed throughout their careers. To accomplish that feat, they will depend on interest compounding—a basic concept that they don’t fully understand. They also struggle with two other critical concepts: risk diversification and inflation.

These are the ABCs of personal finance, the benchmarks by which we measure financial literacy. By age 40, when a majority of Americans have already made most of their important financial decisions, only 1 in 3 has mastered these concepts, according to the NFCS. Unless something changes, millennials will become part of that disturbing statistic.

Such courses must be well designed to be effective. There is mounting evidence that personal-finance courses with a rigorous curriculum and trained teachers are influencing behaviors of young people in matters such as debt and defaulting on debt. Teaching personal finance is not about describing financial products, it is about teaching the principles of financial decision-making so that people understand how financial instruments work. When people are knowledgeable, they also are better able to benefit from the services of…