STEVE INSKEEP, host:
There's a list of 10 most popular college courses making its way around the Internet. You might not be surprised the list includes classes like Harry Potter's Library at Kansas State or Yale's Amazon rain forest course that includes a spring break trip to Ecuador. You might be surprised the list includes a class at Wellesley College in Massachusetts that is neither fun nor easy.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: You can tell a lot about the times we're in by what college kids choose to study. In the 60s, the humanities were big. In the 80s, it was all about high finance. Today at Wellesley, kids are looking for something a little more basic.
Professor ANN WITTE (Wellesley College): And we sort it out by talking about your wages. Now we're talking about your benefits and your withholdings.
SMITH: Wellesley calls it Econ 223. You might call it Real Life 101.
Prof. WITTE: And we're now into how you go from your gross earnings to your net earnings...
SMITH: Twice a week, Professor Ann Witte plows through the fundamentals of personal finance. Students dissect a real live pay stub and Witte schools them on everything from credit cards to 401ks, COBRAs, COLAs and co-pays.
Prof. WITTE: Are you starting to get the idea and you can see why we went down this glossary because without this glossary you can get hopelessly confused on health insurance.
SMITH: It's not exactly sexy stuff, but yes, this is the course at Wellesley that fills up minutes after registration opens.
Ms. FATIMA BURNEY: It's dry, but it's like this is what you need to know before you go out into the real world.
SMITH: Senior Fatima Burney 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 and then couldnt get new coverage.
Ms. BURNEY: There was a huge amount that I didn't know, and you can get into a lot of trouble for it, because youre pretty much planning your life.
SMITH: 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.
Ms. CAROLINE PHILLIPS: Adults also seem to be kind of flummoxed by everything that's going on, and, well, like maybe it didn't work, and maybe the younger people do need to take courses like these and hopefully we can establish a more responsible generation.
Ms. BURNEY: I actually have like friends that have already graduated, they're already doing jobs, and when I told them that I was taking this class, they asked me if I could forward my notes to them.
SMITH: To Professor Witte, it speaks to a fear in young people today that she's never seen before. She started the course about five years ago when she began to notice students completely unprepared to manage their finances.
Prof. WITTE: They would be racking up credit card debt at 18 percent and paying off their student loans at 5.6 percent, and it was just like - and you're an economics major? It doesn't make economic sense.
SMITH: Hoping to give students some real-life experience before they start real life, Witte has kids invent a profile of a person and then start to make decisions like how to invest for retirement or whether to sign up for a flexible spending account.
Prof. WITTE: Most of those students wouldn't have known what any of that stuff was. They don't understand what's going on.
Unidentified Woman: But when you say they just take it away?
Prof. WITTE: Yeah.
Unidentified Student: And they take away your money?
Prof. WITTE: And it goes to the federal government. It's like voluntarily giving the federal government a gift.
And then I think all of a sudden its an a-ha and it's like now they understand and they know what to do.
SMITH: Ultimately, Witte says, every student should take a class like this and get those a-ha's in the classroom rather than the real world. Personal finance should be to college what sex ed is to high school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WITTE: Yup. I think that's a fair analogy.
SMITH: Dont leave school without it.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.