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Career, Financial Literacy Skills Key to Students' Futures

Career, Financial Literacy Skills Key to Students' Futures

by Valerie J. Calderon and Tim Hodges
Chart: data points are described in article

College and career readiness are among the most common goals listed in U.S. public school mission statements, but are the nation's students being adequately prepared for their futures beyond their K-12 education? The 2015 Gallup Student Poll suggests that real-world experience is lacking for many students, but it is more important than ever for a student's long-term success in post-high school work and life. That experience needs to happen in high school or even earlier.

The poll's results are based on a convenience sample of more than 900,000 U.S. public school students in grades five through 12, from 3,300 schools representing more than 550 unique school districts across 46 states. The survey includes a range of items that give feedback on the readiness of the nation's students for success in the future.

The Gallup Student Poll defines career and financial literacy as the information, attitudes and behaviors students need to practice for healthy participation in the economy. Four items help gauge students' career and financial literacy:

  • I have a paying job now.
  • I am learning how to save and spend money.
  • I have a bank account with money in it.
  • I am involved in at least one activity, such as a club, music, sports or volunteering.

Financial Literacy Is Crucial for Students to Successfully Navigate Their Futures

College readiness is more than an academic issue -- it's a financial one. Americans have more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, and the cost of college tuition continues to climb. About four in five Americans (79%) do not believe higher education is affordable for all. Further, young adults cite college costs as their top financial problem, and paying for college tops the financial concerns of U.S. parents who have children younger than 18.

Debt can also have long-term consequences for borrowers. The Gallup-Purdue Index finds that student loan debt can take a toll on borrowers' well-being. Americans who graduated college between 1990 and 2014 who took on more than $50,000 in debt have lower well-being than peers with no student debt. This may stifle entrepreneurship and economic growth, given that the percentage of college graduates who report that they delayed starting a business appears linked to the amount of undergraduate loan debt they incurred.

These findings illustrate the challenges associated with financing higher education. But all students, regardless of whether their plans include higher education, face crucial fiscal realities. Findings from the 2015 Gallup Student Poll suggest students are not as prepared for these realities as they could be. Four in 10 students in grades five through 12 strongly agreed that they are learning how to save and spend money, and less than half strongly agreed that they have a bank account with money in it -- suggesting there is room for them to improve in financial education and experience with money and banking.

Career Literacy Can Begin Early to Help Students Land a Great Job in the Future

For many, healthy participation in the economy begins with a paid job. A Gallup study of the nation's business leaders found that just 11% of these leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies their business needs. Closing this reported skills and knowledge gap is a crucial challenge for education leaders across K-12 and higher education institutions. More than ever, business leaders are looking for graduates with real-world experience, emphasizing the need for such skills as effective communication, managing conflict, organizing and collaboration as keys to success in the workforce.

The Gallup Student Poll found that nearly two in 10 students in grades five through 12 strongly agree that they currently have a paying job. High school seniors reported their participation in a paying job at nearly twice that amount, with 40% who strongly agreed. Early exposure to the world of work could be a healthy experience that prepares students for the future.

While academic success is important, college admissions departments and future employers alike are looking for meaningful experiences that happen outside the classroom. While many U.S. schools offer extracurricular opportunities, only 62% of 12th-graders strongly agreed with the statement, "I am involved in at least one activity, such as a club, music, sports or volunteering" -- the lowest percentage of any grade level. It is possible that many high school seniors are working after school and, as a result, are limiting their extracurricular involvement. There is room for growth in reaching each student with at least one activity outside of the classroom that can help prepare him or her for the future. It is important to help all students reflect on the skills and knowledge they accrue from work and outside-of-school activities so they can build upon them.

Building Career and Financial Literacy

Exploring interests and talents outside the classroom is one way to enhance engagement and help make kids ready for their futures. Early identification of student strengths and interests, mentoring, and career exploration during the K-12 years can go a long way to ensure that students are ready for the future. There is a growing body of research that career and technical education can be a driver of both success in the classroom and preparation for college and the workplace. Several fields have associated Career and Technical Student Organizations that provide members with opportunities to explore their interests and build their understanding within several potential career paths.

Preparing students to be healthy and active participants in our economy requires caring adults who share information, shape attitudes and encourage behaviors that help students know what they do best, navigate an increasingly complex economy and understand their best path forward to their own unique futures.


Tim Hodges, Ph.D., is a Senior Consultant at Gallup.

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