Tuesday, June 07, 2016

If I Could Design One Course…

Wise and worldly readers, if you could design one course to require as a Gen Ed for most or all students -- and it’s not one typically taught now -- what would it be?

I’m thinking a study skills course in which the skills would be applied to critical financial literacy.

I have to tip my cap to my former colleague at Holyoke, Prof. Mary Orisich, for this one.  She developed a course along these lines.  I’d adapt the concept, but the core idea is hers.  

The “critical” part of “critical financial literacy” is the key.  Instead of lessons like “here’s how compound interest works,” it would be “here’s how credit card companies trap you.”  The point of the course would be to empower students to defend themselves against financial predators or common financial mistakes.  Examples might include:

  • Rent-to-own
  • Pawnshops
  • Payday lenders
  • Check cashing stores
  • Subprime loans
  • Interest-only loans

They might learn what it means to “co-sign” for a loan; I’ve heard too many stories of people co-signing for cousins or friends, not really knowing what it entailed, only to find themselves stuck later with unpaid balances and penalties.  They could learn the meaning of a “deductible” in the context of an insurance policy.  

And to make it more than just a personal finance course, some of the lessons could be placed in a broader context of the American economy.  

I like the idea for several reasons.

First, it combines several gen ed skills in one place.  It requires quantitative reasoning in a pretty direct way.  It requires critical thinking to get from “what” to “why.”  Some of the more complex topics could lend themselves to papers, thereby hitting communication skills.  

Second, it’s relevant to students’ daily lives.  Students who come from families with abundant cultural capital may pick up some of this at home, but students whose families are on the ragged edge of the culture may not.  They’re easy prey for financial predators.

Third, and my favorite, is that at some level, the students know that.  They know that something’s wrong, and that it’s harder to get by than it should be.  But they often don’t know the specifics of why.  Empowering them with information presented in the context of a larger perspective can scratch an emotional itch.  Mary told me stories of students having the proverbial lightbulbs go on over their heads as she explained how credit card minimum payments are set deliberately low to trap people.  They got mad.  And once they got mad, they wanted to learn more.  

As any good teacher can tell you, once they want to learn more, you’re halfway home.

The students could do FAFSA forms as a graded exercise.  They could do responses to the forms as critical commentary, and those could lead to some really fruitful discussions about the assumptions embedded in various policies.  The students could learn more fully the ins and outs of financial aid, which could come in handy when they transfer.  

I could even imagine some of them bringing some lessons home to their families.  The empowering effect could spread.

Done right, it could offer students the ability to defend themselves in the real economy, and give them a sense of understanding something real and relevant.  Not a bad start to college.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  If you could require one new course, what would it be?