In 2012, Paulo Costa ’14 landed a summer internship with Goldman Sachs that promised him more money than his parents made in a year. But he turned it down.
Instead, Costa began research in Brazil under the University’s Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship, seeking to combine his shared interests of economics and education. Since beginning his initial research two years ago, Costa has created and implemented a financial education program for high school students in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro that has gained international media attention. Now a Yale senior with plans to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, Costa aims to expand his program as it continues to improve financial literacy among Brazilian students and their families.
“The program is an experiment,” Costa explained. “One thing that I always knew was that Brazil is always at the bottom of the international ranks when it comes to mathematics. I had a suspicion that math had something to do with the low levels of financial literacy in Brazil.”
After convincing the Brazilian Stock Exchange to entrust about $75,000 to a 20-year-old student researcher, Costa conducted a 2,000-person national survey to better understand the financial literacy of Brazil. The results illustrated a strong correlation between lack of math skills and low financial literacy.
With the cooperation of Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Education, Costa designed a class curriculum and authored a 157-page textbook to review basic math concepts with financial applications. By learning multiplication, division, compound percentages and other basic math skills, students gain intuition about budgeting, saving, investing and other financial skills, he said.
Costa recalls meeting resistance when he trained a group of 54 public school teachers who were much older and initially doubted the value of his project.
“There was a lot of objection to what I was doing at first, because they really did not understand the importance of financial literacy to the students of public schools in Brazil,” he said.
Such resistance did not discourage Costa, who successfully convinced the teachers of the project’s merits.
English lecturer Karin Gosselink, who had Costa as a student in his freshman year, described him as fearless and diligent. She added that he “has this uncanny ability to talk with everyone.”
Costa attributes much of his success to the support he received from his mentors. Yale School of Management professor Gary Gorton taught him how to conduct good research, he said, and Gordon’s connection with former Central Bank of Brazil President Armínio Fraga allowed Costa to work under one of the most influential figures in Brazilian financial research.
Apart from empirical data demonstrating the improved financial literacy among students taking Costa’s class, the course has yielded some unexpected and immeasurable results, according to Costa. He said the students not only learned the curriculum material in class, but also took their skills home to discuss with their families — a vital component to changing financial behavior in Brazil.
Mary Johnson, financial literacy expert and student aid director at HigherOne, a company committed to supporting financial literacy initiatives and programs for colleges and students, said a lot of what students learn about finances comes from the family.
“In the U.S., there is not a lot going on, particularly in the schools,” Johnson said. “It would be great to integrate financial literacy efforts into the K-12 experience.”
Looking ahead, Costa plans to expand his program, which started with 18 schools and is now at 28.
Costa is also aiming to secure the influence of his program with the publication of his textbook and the online launching of the course via Educopédia, a national educational platform, later this year.
Costa’s next book plans to address general questions about economics.