Account ability

College students teach financial literacy at South Side schools, a program that is catching on nationwide.

By Carrie Golus, ABí91, AMí93
Photography by Beth Rooney

Spread the wealth: Nance and other mentors teach financial literacy in Chicago schools.

In April 2008 Greg Nance, ’11, then a first-year, took on a hopeless task. As external-relations director for the student investment club the Blue Chips, Nance was charged with bringing national firms to campus to recruit members. But with the stock market tanking, companies weren’t hiring, especially not inexperienced college grads.

So Nance redefined “external relations.” Instead of trying to get members jobs, he’d focus on community service—teaching financial literacy at nearby high schools.

Along with four other Blue Chips members—David Chen, Shashin Chokski, Ted Gonder, and Morgan Hartley, all ’12—Nance interviewed principals and teachers about what kind of program would work in their schools. That September the group began a pilot program that connected Blue Chips members with high-school students.

The following spring, Nance and the others launched Moneythink as a separate registered student organization, complete with a 40-week curriculum for the high schoolers covering finance and economics, investing, financial life skills, and entrepreneurship.

Nearly 600 students have completed the program so far in five South Side schools: Hales Franciscan, Woodlawn Charter, King College Prep, BEST (Bowen Environmental Studies Team) High School, and the South Shore School of Leadership. Last year Moneythink won a student-activities award for “outstanding new RSO.” It’s also a registered LLC in Illinois, and organizers are applying for 501(c)3 charitable status.

Nance, whose father had taught him how to invest his college fund, quickly discovered the need for financial literacy skills among the students. One in three American teenagers carries a credit card, according to research cited on Moneythink’s website, and even more have an ATM card. But some of his students, Nance found, simply threw out their bank statements—or, even worse, credit-card bills—without opening them.

Sparking high-school students’ interest was a challenge. Nance and the other Moneythink mentors continually revised their lessons, discarding those that didn’t connect with students. “My first attempt to explain Obama’s stimulus package elicited a lot of yawns,” says Nance. The second time, he talked about winners and losers—which industries and companies would benefit and which would not. That generated more interest.

Another effective approach was to “cross the socioeconomic divide,” says Nance, with pop-culture references. Marketing: not so interesting. But students were fascinated by how Lil Wayne built a following by giving away promotional CDs for free and then selling a million copies of Tha Carter III in its first week out.

Cautionary tales also got the teens’ attention, such as the story of Antoine Walker, the former Boston Celtics star “who blew 80 million dollars,” says Nance, on luxury clothing, cars, vacations, and “supporting a 70-person posse.” For Moneythink’s students, it’s a powerful lesson. “Antoine is from the South Side and was a hero to many,” says Nance. “His example clearly illustrates the need for budgeting and financial goal-setting.”

Nance also used real-world business examples, such as discussions about Jewel-Osco, Wal-mart, and Starbucks. “It makes a huge difference when what you’re trying to teach in the classroom applies to real life.” The current finance and economics curriculum includes topics such as “Moneythink Records: Starting a New Venture,” using music label DefJam as a case study, and “What’s So Great about the [Nike] Swoosh.”

Moneythink mentors teach during the school day—the specific days and hours vary by school. This fall, Nance says, Moneythink will pilot a full-time program at Hales Franciscan. Mentors will be in the classroom five days a week, alongside the students’ regular teachers.

Nance and the other founders hope to turn Moneythink into a national movement: “the preeminent youth financial-education program in the U.S. by 2020,” according to the group’s brochure. Four other universities already have active chapters: Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Southern California, the University of Florida, and Seattle University. Fourteen more institutions, including Georgetown, Princeton, and Columbia, have fledgling groups.

In recognition of his work with Moneythink, in March Nance was named a Truman Scholar, one of 60 socially committed college juniors across the country to receive the $30,000 award. Nance, a political-science major, plans to use the grant to pursue graduate work, either in education or business. A month after receiving the scholarship, Nance—who also volunteers as a debate and chess coach in public schools—was elected Student Government president.

His political instincts serve him in the classroom as well. For two weeks he promised his Moneythink students an opportunity to pick stocks in the computer lab.  When the day finally came, there was a technical glitch, and they couldn’t get online. “They forgave me,” says Nance, when at the next meeting the students were able to pick the stocks—and he sweetened the deal with Tootsie Pops.


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