Jennifer Cha ’18, an economics major who is working at Goldman Sachs a year out of Yale, says she knows little about saving for retirement. She’s filling these gaps by looking to internal resources in her company for advice on her 401(k) and to friends a few years older than her, who have already made many of the financial decisions she is facing.
Cha is not alone in her lack of personal finance know-how. Without access to personal finance coursework, many Yale College students graduate lacking basic knowledge on how to manage their money. But economic considerations infuse so many aspects of life at Yale — even the decision to attend in the first place.
In his article “The Birth of a New Aristocracy” for The Atlantic, philosopher and social critic Matthew Stewart writes that for children of the 9.9 percent, attending an Ivy League school is one of the simplest ways to replicate one’s parents’ success — and to accumulate even more than the previous generation. In an article for The New York Times, personal finance columnist Ron Lieber reports on a new tool for high school students to simulate the economics of attending college. Payback is an online game that tracks students’ virtual debt and their steps to eliminate such debt — from choice of major to professional connections. It’s becoming clear: The business of going to college these days is driven by economics.
Yale curates not only a specific intellectual experience for its students, but also a social and economic one. At the annual winter holiday extravaganza, dining services staff don formal attire and parade around a full-sized turkey and yardstick-length loaves of bread. Weekly teas bring prominent authors, politicians and other figures of intellectual, social and economic clout to speak to and mingle with undergraduates. Attending Yale, students are lifted into higher social strata. While Yale is about intellect, it’s also about positioning — a kind of social and economic jockeying for a spot amongst the elites.
While the financial benefits and drawbacks of attending college are more and more on people’s radar, few incorporate it into their view of what constitutes worthy coursework. Yale economics professor James Choi, who teaches in the School of Management and specializes in household financial behavior, believes that personal finance doesn’t belong in Yale’s undergraduate curriculum. Instead, he’ll be teaching a new School of Management elective course in the spring 2018 term called “Personal Finance.” Designed for what he calls the next generation of “thought-leaders,” “Personal Finance” is largely inaccessible to undergrads, mostly due to the high level of math involved. Professor Choi doesn’t believe that Yale College should offer a simpler version of “Personal Finance”: A lighter descendant would simply lack the “intellectual heft” of its predecessor and would teach material that proactive students could otherwise read out of “Finance for Dummies,” he said.
As Choi makes evident, those who create curricula see Yale as a place of only academic learning in the strongest sense of the word academic. But a small group of Yale alumni have insisted that Yale students need a practical education in personal finance. In 2005, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives for the Association of Yale Alumni Steve Blum ’74, along with Tara Falcone ’11 and John Caserta ’01, started holding “Financial Life After Yale” workshops in Yale residential colleges and graduate schools. Thirteen years later, Blum and his team have held more than 160 sessions and taught almost 4,000 members of the Yale community. But, given the time constraints, these 90-minute workshops are only able to cover so much material.
College students are graduating with very little idea how to handle their money. Levi Sanchez, a fee-only financial planner at Millennial Wealth in Seattle who also did not take any personal finance courses while attending Washington State University as an undergraduate, says he gets high-salaried tech employees knocking at his door all the time. Of his 25- to 35-year-old clients making 100 to 200K per year, “the vast majority aren’t very financially literate,” he said. These are people who have gone to elite universities, taken high-level coursework and been hired by some of the top tech companies in the world.
“If I were to talk to them about the difference between a mutual fund and a collective trust fund, more than half wouldn’t be able to explain that.”
As longtime University of California, Berkeley personal finance instructor Fred Selinger says, “paychecks don’t come with instructions.” The problem for Yale students and their peers is obtaining those instructions after they’ve already graduated. In the absence of accessible coursework, privilege seems to play the biggest role in ensuring that students become financially literate. Aaron Resnick ’18, who majored in cognitive science with a concentration in behavioral economics and co-founded the real estate startup Astorian at Yale, says he doesn’t know much about saving for retirement and buying a house. He is relying on his parent’s advice and on the skills he has developed paying taxes for his startup when it comes to making future personal finance decisions.
Today’s college students face unique financial challenges. Selinger says it is possible that Social Security and Medicare may run out of money by the time millennials reach retirement age. The conversation in Selinger’s classroom is not about how to plan for one’s eventual use of these services but how to reach financial self-sufficiency. Anne Witte, who taught personal finance for around 10 years at Wellesley College, says the whole calculus regarding whether to attend college at all has changed. The first half of her course almost exclusively focuses on students’ choice between attending college or entering the workforce straight out of high school.
One can find plenty of personal finance courses online, at community colleges or at larger public universities, such as the University of California, Irvine and Ohio State University. But many professors, students and administrators alike at elite universities hold the conviction that personal finance is a life skill — one that does not belong in a classroom.
A personal finance course would not be the only course to teach a life skill at Yale. “Life Worth Living,” which combines teaching from foundational religious texts with discussion of what it means to lead a meaningful life, has been taught in the Humanities Program since 2014. Last year, psychology professor Laurie Santos debuted “Psychology and the Good Life,” a course that combined the latest psychological research on happiness with real-life exercises to help students build healthy habits. A Yale professor might consider pairing personal finance skills with discussion of what it means to be “wealthy,” of socioeconomic concerns at Yale and of the financial lives students themselves hope to lead after college. Indeed, personal finance instructors say that, when taught right, the subject has intellectual heft. Witte considers the personal finance course she taught at Wellesley just as rigorous as her courses in econometrics and microeconomics.
Other factors may be holding up the establishment of a personal finance course. According to Witte, young faculty members aren’t often rewarded in their academic careers for teaching a less technical course like personal finance. There may be greater underlying reticence on the part of educational institutions, too. A strong personal finance education includes analysis of opportunity costs — including that of attending college. Former Oberlin personal finance instructor Beth Tallman says that, after taking her course, one of her students decided she would be better off leaving Oberlin than spending money struggling there.
The lack of a personal finance course has definite impacts on students’ lives, and the people affected most are at-risk students.
“People who are most literate in these things have parents who have their own accountants or work in some sort of financial service industry or have a higher net worth,” Cha said. A course would be especially helpful for people from “more challenging backgrounds where maybe your parents are immigrants and they’re not as familiar with 401(k)s or accounts in the states,” she said. For these at-risk students, a personal finance course takes on the tenor not of being optional or for personal enrichment, but of being necessary to avoid costly potential mistakes they might make out of college.
Right now, Blum is working on transforming his 90-minute workshop into a semesterlong, for-credit course offered as a residential college seminar. His associate Falcone is launching LIT, an online financial literacy platform which will be home to 80 personal finance instructional videos and will be freely available to Yale students. Carefree intellectual evironments seem impractical as financial concerns grow: Yale, at least, is starting to blend consideration of the two. The expanding personal finance offerings, and student support for them, confirms that. Alumni like Blum and Talcone are spearheading these personal finance efforts; the next step is for Yale faculty members to join in.