Thursday, May 18, 2017

Financial Literacy Courses – A Bad Idea?

In an interview on CBC The 180,  Daniel Munro, Associate Director, Public Policy at The Conference Board of Canada, and an ethics lecturer at the University of Ottawa, asks the question: Do mandated high school financial literacy courses do more harm than good? I urge you to listen to the podcast of the entire episode, and read the piece he wrote for Macleans on the same topic, but essentially he bases his argument on three points.
  1. As usually structured, such courses give an incorrect view that making good financial choices is all that is important (neglecting circumstances). 
  2. The evidence suggests that the positive impact of mandatory financial literacy courses is short lived.
  3. There may be misplaced over-confidence from taking a single financial literacy course, actually contributing to bad financial choices made later in life.
In March I argued that we need more financial literacy, and I stand by that assertion. I am glad to see that in various parts of Canada there are new initiatives to support enhanced financial literacy.

However, I think that Daniel Munro's interview is a wake up call to make sure that we have the right sort of financial literacy education. Also, we must do the research to make sure that financial literacy courses are actually contributing to improved long term outcomes.  Let us look at the three points from the Daniel Munro interview.

(1)  He argues that courses, at least as currently formulated in the grade 10 course about to become mandatory in Ontario, place too much emphasis on just one element of financial decisions, making good choices.  While clearly good choices matter, he argues that this emphasis in the absence of a consideration of circumstances, is at best incomplete.  Circumstances of many types, including family circumstances and obligations, costs of living in your region, educational opportunities, natural abilities, and much more, all contribute to the right financial decision in a situation. In his Macleans piece Daniel Munro states the case clearly and powerfully as follows:
"...fairness and responsibility argue that while people ought to be responsible for what results from their choices, they should not be responsible for what results from circumstances that are beyond their control..."

(2)   With respect to the long term impact of mandated financial literacy courses, he points out in the Macleans piece that research evidence supports the idea that financial literacy course impact is limited.  He mentions a meta analysis of 168 research papers covering more than 200 studies on effectiveness of financial literacy courses.   While I have not read that analysis in detail, I am familiar with this report by Shawn Cole, Anna Paulson, and Gauri Kartini Shastry that looked at the effectiveness of mandated financial literacy courses in the US, where in some states there is a history of sufficient length to study such effects. The report is a white paper of the Harvard Business School, and is entitled High School Curriculum and Financial Outcomes: The Impact of Mandated Personal Finance and Mathematics Courses. I quote from part of the abstract of the paper that gives a clear indication of the results:
"Financial literacy and cognitive capabilities are convincingly linked to the quality of financial decision-making. Yet, there is little evidence that education intended to improve financial decision-making is successful...this paper answers the question 'Can good financial behavior be taught in high school?' It can, though not via traditional personal finance courses, which we find have no effect on financial outcomes."
Interestingly, the paper goes on to show that more mathematics education can lead to enhanced long term improvements in financial decision making and investment participation.

(3)   We all know that over-confidence can be dangerous, and this certainly applies to financial decision making.  Daniel Munro cites a 2014 study by Marc Kramer that found that
"...confidence in ones‘ own (financial) literacy is negatively associated with asking for help, while actual expertise does not relate to advice-seeking"
While I firmly believe that finance and investment education is a positive, his remarks remind us that part of that education must be a clear understanding of the limitations of understanding, and the value of seeking advice.  As mentioned in my previous post,  I prefer a spiral approach to financial education, starting in elementary school and extending throughout life.

I believe that mathematics education has a longer impact than financial literacy courses due to two factors.  Mathematics education tends to be taught in a very active learning mode: most mathematics educators realize that you learn math by doing math (including discovering some relationships on your own), not by having it explained to you.  There is an important lesson here for financial literacy teachers.

The second reason is that mathematics education emphasizes concepts and techniques with broad application, and through those applications it keeps getting used regularly. I think that a similar approach is necessary for successful financial literacy courses, and "one of" financial literacy efforts will be doomed to failure.

I have been working for some time on a future post that will present my ideas for a different kind of university based financial education course.  That will stress active learning, quantitative reasoning, and the link between financial decisions and positive public policy. Sign up to follow this blog and you will receive each new post directly to your email, complete with all hyperlinks (and no advertisements!).

I would love to hear your opinions, either through the comment section or through an exchange on Twitter.

 The writer is not a financial planner or investment advisor, and reading this column should not be interpreted as obtaining individual financial planning or investment advice.  While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Added note: I have added material to the original posting based on his Macleans article, and the linked studies therein, that I did not know about at the time of the original posting.

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