The phrase “When am I going to use this in real life?” is a classroom refrain as old as calculus. If a student poses this question to any of the volunteers, teachers, or peer ambassadors that work with the Economic Awareness Council (EAC), they can simply respond, “Every single day.”
The EAC was founded in 2003, at a time when credit card companies were targeting college students who soon found themselves buried in astronomical credit card debt.
“We were really seeing our peers struggle,” says Hinsdale’s Tracy Frizzell, executive director of the EAC. “It just seemed like there needed to be a lot more done to help youth develop the actual life skills that you need beyond the classroom as you move into adulthood.”
The EAC is a nonprofit organization that teaches young people how to structure and manage their finances in regards to their own personal goals.
The process begins with a pre-test assessing how familiar the student already is with personal economics. Questions cover the basics of banking and credit from “Do you know what the term deposit means?” to “Can you check your credit report for free?” The students the EAC worked with using their high school curriculum averaged 56 percent correct on the pretest in the year 2016.
Over the years, the EAC has grown to emphasize working more with need-based students in high poverty, unbanked communities. They work with more than five nonprofit organizations in DuPage County, like the afterschool program Willowbrook Corner, which offers academic tutoring and social support to at-risk youth. Last year, the EAC had a program attendance of more than 25,000 students.
Though the EAC engages with children as young as elementary school, the most common participants are in middle school and high school, especially as they get their first part-time jobs.
“We find that’s the perfect teachable moment, when they get their first paycheck,” Frizzell says. “There are fabulous jobs programs in the city of Chicago that hire over 30,000 youths every summer. We found out that a majority of the youths were just using check-cashing facilities to get their pay. Last summer we presented to over 8,000 youths and we had over 4,000 of them use direct deposit. So this is a big life change for them.”
The success of the program depends upon finding each student’s personal set of short term and long term goals and showing them how a financial plan can create a path toward realizing that goal. Though one may expect the goals of high school kids to be retail related, the goals are mostly educational or vocational, such as affording a four-year college, getting certification as a beautician, or starting their own business.
“Schools don’t really stress the importance of financial literacy,” says Samantha Mallett, who began with the EAC during her freshman year of high school and became a peer ambassador over the summer. “It taught me how to save and how to manage my money more wisely. We go out and speak to other teens about how to start bank accounts and the importance of direct deposit and avoiding check cashing fees.“
Empowering their students to become peer ambassadors works well on a few levels. High school aged students are much more engaged by people their own age, and the effect of EAC students passing on the knowledge they’ve applied engages them socially and gives them confidence.
“One of my favorite things is seeing how empowering it is for them to make a change in their community and how positive it makes them feel,” Frizzell says.
For more information, visit econcouncil.org