How Pennsylvania is addressing financial illiteracy

After I wrote about the nation’s lack of financial literacy recently, readers sent word about other surveys demonstrating the misadventures with money among all age groups.

It would be understandable if there were a lack of resources on personal finance. But it’s bewildering given all the shelves of books in libraries and bookstores, as well as the many Web sites, magazines, TV shows and newspaper columns devoted to the topic.

As financial illiterates, are we drowning in a river of too much information, or parched because we don’t have sense enough to drink?

Probably a little of both.

Pennsylvania has been trying to help schools, workplaces and community groups teach students, employees and neighbors about their financial lives through the Office of Financial Education, which is part of the state Banking Department. You can read the kind of information it’s been providing at its Web site here.

Director Mary Rosenkrans said the agency, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, has trained 2,000 teachers in personal finance since 2005 and estimates that 400,000 students have benefited from that knowledge transfer.

But a survey commissioned by her office shows how far the state has to go in making sure high school graduates are prepared to handle a credit card or checking account.

Only 44 of the 584 schools contacted in 2009 by Penn State’s Survey Research Center reported requiring a stand-alone course in personal finance for graduation. That’s up from 20, according to a similar survey done in 2007.

Many others offer an elective course that involves personal finance, but the 2009 survey indicates less than 50 percent of graduates actually takes that class.

Rosenkrans said many children used to learn about personal finance from their parents. The trouble is the financial world has grown so complex in recent years that many parents now question what they thought they knew about the credit cards in their wallet or the mortgage on their house.

As more Pennsylvania teachers gain the confidence and training needed to teach personal finance, maybe some of their students can explain it to their parents.