Prof. Ann Witte created the Fundamentals of Personal Finance at Wellesley College to help students get some real life experience before they start real life.
Prof. Ann Witte created the Fundamentals of Personal Finance at Wellesley College to help students get some real life experience before they start real life. Richard Howard
You can tell a lot about the times we're in by what college kids choose to study.
In the 1960s, humanities were big. In the 1980s, it was all about high finance. Today at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, kids are looking for something a little more basic. It's called ECON 223 but you might call it Real Life 101.
Twice a week, Professor Ann Witte and co-teacher, Saundra Gulley plow through the fundamentals of personal finance.
Students dissect a real pay stub and learn about everything from gross and net earnings to COBRA, COLAs and co-pays.
It's not exactly sexy stuff, but this course fills up minutes after registration opens.
"It's dry, but this is what you need to know before you go out into the real world," says senior Fatima Burney. She says she's watched her older sister make costly mistakes that she doesn't want to repeat — like ending up having to fly out of the country to get dental work because she let her insurance lapse.
"There was a huge amount I didn't know, and you can get in a lot of trouble for it," Burney says.
It may be stuff that people used to just learn on the fly, but as senior Caroline Phillips puts it, that clearly hasn't worked out too well for the generation of grownups now losing their houses.
"Adults also seem to be kinda flummoxed by everything that's going on, and well, maybe it didn't work, and maybe younger people need to take courses like these and hopefully we can be a more responsible generation," Phillips says.
"I actually have relatives and friends who have already graduated, they're already doing jobs, and when I told them I was doing this class, they asked me if I could forward my notes to them," says Burney.
'You're An Econ Major?'
Witte and Gulley started the course about five years ago when they began to notice students completely unprepared to manage their finances.
"They would be racking up credit card debt at 18 percent and paying off student loans at 5.6 percent and it was just like 'You're an econ major?' It doesn't make economic sense," Witte says.
Hoping to give students some real-life experience before they start real life, Witte has them invent a profile of a person and then make decisions — such as how to invest for retirement or whether to sign up for a flexible spending account.
"Most of those students wouldn't have known what any of that stuff was. They don't understand what's going on," Witte says.
Going through the exercises in class provides an "aha" moment for students, "and now they understand and they know what to do," Witte says.
Ultimately, Witte says every student should take a class like this, and get those "aha" moments in the classroom, rather than making mistakes in the real world.