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Students Learn the Basics of Lifelong Personal Finance in Entrepreneurship Course

Nov. 06, 2012

Liv Combe

Brannon Rockwell-Charland

When describing the goals of her personal finance course, Beth Tallman likes to tell a story about a former student. “After she finished the class, Tiffany [Henry ’15] was going around encouraging all her friends to take it, to sign up for it as soon as they could,” says Tallman. “Her friends wanted to know, ‘Do you learn about business?’ And Tiffany said, ‘You learn about the business of your life.’”

In the world of liberal arts colleges, personal finances seem to be something of a lost art, giving way in the curriculum to more humanities and science-based courses. Nevertheless, having a firm handle on one’s fiscal future is becoming more and more crucial across the board, regardless of a student’s major.

Enter Tallman, the course instructor for Entrepreneurship 110: Fundamentals of Finance. Though she jokingly calls herself a “financial life coach,” it’s true for the 100 or so Oberlin students who have already come through the four classes she’s taught since she began at Oberlin last October.

These days, “kids hardly touch money,” says Tallman. “Everything is swiped. They’re not feeling it. So I could see how getting in trouble would happen. Students have lived here for four years in a dorm, and many of them don’t even know how much it costs to feed themselves for a week.”

With a background in corporate finance and teaching high school math, Tallman became involved with Oberlin College through America Counts, a math tutoring program pairing college students with children at local schools. Around the time that she and her husband, Professor of Economics Ellis Tallman, moved to town, Trustee Thomas Kutzen ’76 approached the economics department with the idea for a class on personal finance. It was soon decided that the course belonged in the Creativity & Leadership entrepreneurship group, and that Tallman was the one to teach it.

According to a recent article on CNNMoney, the average 2012 graduate left college not only with a diploma but also with around $27,000 in student loans to pay off. Taking that burden into a world where government debt, bank foreclosures, and Social Security issues are in the headlines more often than not, students must be prepared to make informed financial decisions at all stages of their lives — or so it says in the Fundamentals of Finance course description.

With as much information as possible crammed into six short weeks, Tallman covers a wide variety of topics falling under the finance heading and “the unavoidable things in life”: everything from credit and debit cards, banking, retirement and mutual funds, local taxes, insurance, and student loan repayment are subjects on the curriculum.

“This isn’t a remedial, how-to-balance-a-checkbook-class,” says Tallman. “First, I scare the students. Then I tell them that’s it’s going to be okay.”

Tallman consistently uses the book “Get A Financial Life,” by Beth Kobliner for her course, but the remainder of the course material varying each time she teaches. Tallman pulls together various articles and current events to supplement classes, expanding lessons to the “bigger picture,” like the presidential race.

“With the election going on this semester, it was a whole lot of fun to talk about budget, being able to show them things like debits and credits and what the candidates’ plans looks like and what they would do to the deficit.”

Although this is the first such class available at Oberlin, the idea of personal finance courses at undergraduate liberal arts institutions is not entirely new; a newfound stress on financial literacy is a development slowly creeping through liberal arts colleges.

“We’re not the first [to have personal finance classes],” says Tallman, “but we’re definitely at the front of the way.” Other schools, including Dartmouth College, Beloit College, and Smith College, have some kind of fledgling personal finance program, workshop, or course in the works for their students.

Financial knowledge could prove useful for college students of all ages. But Tallman aims the course toward juniors and seniors who are closer to the financial realities of the “real world.”

For the final project, for example, Tallman has the students create a budget for an imagined life, complete with a salary, taxes, and a retirement plan. “If the seniors know what they’re doing next year, they can use their own scenario,” says Tallman. “Then they walk away with a budget plan for their first year.”

Along with teaching students to take their own knowledge of personal finance into the world, Tallman is currently working on phase two of the program, which will enable students who have taken her class to share their newfound financial savvy, both on campus and within the larger Oberlin community.

Through participation in a winter-term training program, students would be instructed on how to teach personal finance to others, with each student having their own specialty — one could be the go-to student for credit cards, for example, while another knows all the important points concerning insurance.

On campus, students might team up with various organizations to work as peer advisors. Off campus, Tallman imagines the class working with a variety of local community service organizations.

Until the winter term idea is finalized, Tallman remains focused on teaching her students as much as she can in the half semester they have available to them.

“They’re not going to absorb and regurgitate all the information I present to them, but they’re getting bits and pieces of it,” says Tallman. “My hope is that between hanging onto the materials we use in class and some of the notes, when the students face this stuff, they’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember talking about that.’ Now is the time to teach them how to be financially responsible. They don’t know what they don’t know until they walk into the classroom.”

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