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Curriculum changes aim to help high-school students with financial literacy

First year University of Toronto student Allegra Fiorino learned most of her financial knowledge from her parents and feels high school didn't prepare her for proper financial literacy.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Allegra Fiorino laughs when asked if she was ever taught financial literacy at her Toronto high school. "I can confidently say that, no, I never was," says the 18-year-old University of Toronto student. "I don't even know what it is."

Ms. Fiorino says the math questions in the curriculum were all about how fast planes were going – "problems you had to solve. There was nothing about mortgages. Or buying a car," she says. "They're not explaining how [someone] buys a house."

She recalls one friend who launched a successful landscaping business in high school – only to see it fall apart through fiscal mismanagement. "I know one guy who at 16 made thousands of dollars on a landscaping business, and lost it all," she says. "We really should be taught this in high school and at university."

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A newly announced Ontario government program aims to do just that – soon making financial literacy education a reality for high-school students. The mandatory Grade 10 career studies course will be composed of four modules: financial literacy, entrepreneurship skills, digital literacy and career/life planning.

It's certainly needed. A 2015 PwC survey of more than 5,500 U.S. millennials aged 23 to 35 found that only 24 per cent demonstrated basic financial knowledge. And a 2015 report from CIBC found that 82 per cent of Canadians between 18 and 34 felt they lacked financial knowledge and investing confidence.

Currently, the career studies program is being piloted at 28 schools in the province, according to Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter. She says the pilots will allow students and teachers to provide feedback on how to best craft the course, which will launch in September, 2018.

"Within these modules, students will be asked to investigate their financial future, which could involve examining their possible postsecondary destination, tuition costs and financing so that they can build a budget to realize these goals," Ms. Hunter said.

Ontario has been integrating financial literacy into the curriculum since 2011, for Grades 4 to 12, according to Ministry of Education spokeswoman Heather Irwin. Students are taught how to save, spend and invest money wisely, as well as how to be responsible consumers and how to protect their personal information online.

In Grades 9 and 10, students learn the skills needed to manage financial resources to meet personal and family financial goals: creating a budget, developing personal banking skills and regulating credit card use. In Grade 11, a program called Housing and Home Design teaches students about the financial obligations associated with renting and home ownership, such as the first and last month's rent, down payments, deposits, mortgages – even lawyers' and real estate agents' fees.

"By implementing financial literacy across different subjects including mathematics, social studies, Canadian and world studies, students have multiple opportunities to gain background knowledge and skills in financial literacy so that they are ready to navigate their own career path," Ms. Hunter said.

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But it's unclear how effectively the six-year-old program has been implemented – or how successful it's been.

According to Jasmine Wong Denike, the president of the University of Toronto Students' Union, students routinely show up in her office not knowing the basics of saving, using credit cards or budgeting. Now that it's tax season, she said, the student union's tax clinic is overrun with confused students. "They're totally not prepared for taxes," she said. "High schools don't teach these things."

Kate Johnson, the chaplain of Queen's University in Kingston, saw a dire need for financial literacy on campus – and launched a program to address it three years ago. She had watched the parade of expensive Hunter rubber boots and $800 Canada Goose jackets, "plus the lineup at Starbucks," and wondered how students were managing their expenses.

"They seemed to not have the skills to manage their money," Ms. Johnson said. "They don't know enough about money to know how this will impact them later on."

She says many students sign up with the credit card companies on campus but falsely believe they're building credit without paying their monthly bills. "They don't realize they need to pay those bills to have that credit rating," she said.

Her program, designed with the help of several financial planners, has become a financial boot camp of sorts. "We talk about marketing, we talk about debt," Ms. Johnson said. "When I explain compound interest to them, the majority of them want to throw up. … It's great that the provincial government has decided to do this" – a reference to the new career studies program.

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Caroline Cakebread, a Toronto-based financial literacy consultant, is pleased with the new program but cautions that it must be rolled out carefully – and with key deliverables in mind. "I think they need to be really clear. What outcomes do they want to have?" she said. "They need to put resources there for teachers to use. And the concepts have to be easy to implement.

"Teachers will need support to deliver this."

As for Ms. Fiorino, she feels that teachers need to give the new program some teeth. "If it's in the curriculum, the teachers need to enforce it more."

In the meantime, she's using some skills her parents taught her to handle first-year expenditures. "I've been pretty smart about it," she says. "Plus, I'm a little bit cheap."

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