What We Know About Graduating High School Seniors and Their Money

In an attempt to understand the financial capability of the adults currently in college and preparing to become part of the future workforce, EVERFI and AIG Retirement Services collected survey data from a nationally representative sample of college students, totaling over 30,000 respondents from more than 440 institutions located in 45 states. The survey focused on respondents’ financial knowledge, experience, behaviors, and perspectives. Students who were taking online education courses on personal wellness were given a chance to provide responses to survey items and response dates spanned across the fall semester of 2018 and early spring semester of 2019.

While this study revealed a great deal about college students’ attitudes, experiences, and behaviors, by narrowing down the study sample, it can also provide information specific to the financial capability of high school seniors who have just graduated and are heading to college for the first time. When we filter the sample for analysis down to just those students who are 18 or younger, report they are entering their first year of college, and are NOT transfer students, we end up with about 10,000 respondents who we can consider to be recent high school graduates. Here are some highlights from their survey response data:

These students are least prepared to manage money of any challenge associated with college.

Respondents were presented with a variety of challenges associated with college and asked which they felt they were prepared to tackle. Consistently, students reported that they were the LEAST prepared to Manage their Money (only 47% felt prepared) compared to Managing Time, Finding Resources, Keeping Up with Coursework, and Staying Organized. This tells us that students want to discuss and learn about finances in the classroom — whether it’s a teacher-led discussion, a practice activity, or one of the budgeting simulations from EVERFI’s financial suite of financial literacy resources.

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Credit card use and debt are already part of their lives.

Nearly a third (30%) of all the recently graduated students we surveyed reported they currently had at least one credit card. Of those students with credit cards, 77% have only one card (16% have two cards) and the rest have more than two. In terms of total credit card debt, a quarter (24%) of this sample already has more than $1000 in credit card debt. Sixty percent of these recent high school graduates also report that they will be taking out loans to help finance their education, but only about 40% of those students with loans plan to pay those on time and in full.

Presenting students with their options for financing higher education sooner rather than later will allow them to proactively start pursuing those options, leaving them with less debt after college graduation. In addition to that, students who receive meaningful financial education before they are eligible to start incurring debt make smarter decisions about credit card usage and debt accumulation.

Planning for the financial future is not a priority.

Students were asked what they plan to accomplish in the next year to help manage their finances and prepare for the future. While they were presented with a variety of different healthy planned behaviors, only a third (30%) reported they would balance their accounts and less than that (28%) would start saving for an emergency fund. Less than 12% of these students have used a money management program/app or even used a spreadsheet to track their finances. Teaching students the importance of saving and budgeting will lead to better financial habits in the future. This can look like setting up a budgeting spreadsheet in class, exposing students to budgeting apps for their own finances, assigning them an income and bills to create a budget around it, and more.

Knowledge and Education are low.

Only 40% of this sample of adults report having ever taken a personal finance course in high school and that includes students graduating from a state that claims to require such a course for graduation. To assess each student’s financial knowledge, participants were asked to answer 6 basic financial knowledge questions, pulled from the financial literacy research and referencing topics such as credit history, net worth, interest rates, and student loans. As prior research from EVERFI and other organizations have found, respondents struggled with the basic questions, answering only 2 out of 6 multiple-choice questions correctly on average with particularly low success rates on questions about credit card use, credit history, and building an emergency fund. Students may not know what they don’t know until it is too late. By ensuring that every student in a district get access to a financial education throughout their schooling (and not just those that pursue finance-related classes), we can empower the next generation to make responsible, informed decisions around money.

Stress is high, especially about finding a job after graduation.

The challenges of paying for one’s education and engaging in personal finance management (perhaps for the first time) can represent a source of significant emotional distress for students in college so researchers presented 11 different financial issues associated with post-secondary education and asked how much anxiety they produced for respondents. Finding a Job After Graduation (72%) was the most frequently chosen challenge, followed by Tuition Hikes (60%) and Applying for Financial Aid (56%). We found that stress generally decreased as financial knowledge scores increased, but not in response to any experience with a personal finance course in high school.

It is clear that these students matriculating to college for the first time are desperately in need of increased education and skills related to personal finance management and future fiscal planning. Already they are being saddled with credit card and student loan debt and do not report feeling prepared to navigate these challenges or that their college career with reward them with an appropriate return on their investment. More needs to be done to enforce financial literacy training policies and standards for high school students who will quickly be making major, irreversible financial decisions soon after graduation which could lead to dire consequences once those students finish their post-secondary education. Educators can help by establishing an environment where students feel comfortable sharing their financial questions, ensuring students know what financial sources to trust, and checking out the latest no cost, financial simulations and lessons from EVERFI to help lay a strong foundation.

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EVERFI empowers teachers to bring critical skills education into their classrooms at no cost. Get activated and join 50,000+ educators across North America!