By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
While federal agencies warn of a looming student loan debt crisis, Texas schools will start teaching students about college payment options in August.
Along with adjusting curriculums to align with new state tests, schools must enhance classroom instruction on financial literacy to include student loans and other financing methods for post-secondary education.
"The changes were approved by the State Education Board in January," said Suzanne Marchman, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency. "The requirements have not been updated yet, but they should be implemented in schools in August 2012."
The new state requirements come at a time when several federal entities, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are concerned about the rise in student loan debt and defaults.
Both federal agencies reported that outstanding student debt has topped $1 trillion, and the default rates for student loans continued to increase along with student borrowing. In 2011, students acquired more than $117 billion through federal loans.
The consumer protection bureau reported that the student loan market now was "to big to fail."
Michelle Downs, a partner and certified accountant with Pattillo, Brown & Hill, L.L.P and president of the Central Texas chapter of Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants, wasn't surprised at the national student loan figures.
Downs said she has worked with clients who have educated themselves on student debt and others who didn't realize the substantial size of their repayments. "You really need to know the mechanics of those loans, so you don't put yourself in too much of a bind after you graduate."
One of the keys to avoiding these kinds of financial surprises, said Down, was to educate young people about money, not just student loans. She said teaching students "financial literacy" would result in more stability in adulthood.
"It's important to start early because everything that they do, even at that early stage, will affect them for the rest of their lives, even through their college education, career and retirement," said Downs.
But getting students, particularly those in high school, to understand the importance of managing their finances isn't easy.
A 2008 survey conducted by the nonprofit Jump$tart Coalition, which promotes financial literacy for teens and college students, showed that high school students had an average score of 43.3 percent on answers to basic finance questions.
Texas legislators have tried to address the problem. In 2005, financial literacy became part of the state's Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills core requirements for grades K-12. High school seniors also are required to take and pass an economics class in order to graduate.
"The economics classes cover a little bit of everything," said Trish Brown, an institutional specialist for the Killeen Independent School District. "It covers subjects like savings accounts, personal investments, personal retirement plans, types of loans, how to avoid and eliminate credit card debt, insurance, charitable giving and even the cost and benefits of renting or buying a home."
Brown said the Killeen district's curriculum followed state requirements and would incorporate the new mandates about college payment options next school year.
"It's very important for (students) to have a well-rounded knowledge of personal finance," said Downs, adding that parents and guardians had the most influence over how well young people manage their money in adulthood.
"Set a good example for your kids, talk to them about debt and really let them know how it works, and how it will affect them in the future," said Downs, whose 6-year-old twins have bank accounts and get lessons on interest. "They are going to see how you manage your money, and they are going to pick that up, so start from an early age, and it will pay off when they grow up."
Contact Chris McGuinness at firstname.lastname@example.org.