Nan Austin

Figuring college costs provides its own education

This week, I got to meet 60 third-graders buzzing about planting seeds and starting their own gardens. Leading the session was a high school senior with an enviable problem.

Big Valley Christian High student Caitlyn Wherry acknowledged, with pride and amazement, that she has been accepted to Harvard, Yale and Stanford. It’s a tough decision.

Her choice rests on where best to pursue a double major in political science and international relations, which coast she wants to live on, and the economic realities of top-tier schools.

Scholarships can ease the pain and even the playing field. But every educational choice involves a best-guess dollar calculation of what will be needed – tuition, books, living costs, traveling home for school breaks and a good laptop.

In time for Financial Literacy Month – and for seniors making the big decision – the Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education has put together a quick guide to its many tips sheets and calculators:

▪ Financial Literacy Resource –

▪  Budgeting –

▪  Responsible Borrowing –

▪  Repayment, What to Expect –

▪  How to Manage Your Student Loans –

For parents, just in time for tax day, comes advice on Uncle Sam’s contribution to the cause:

America’s Promise Alliance and uAspire, with support from the Citi Foundation, offer a financial aid tool for families, the Dollars for College Financial Planning Toolkit –

Also of note for parents is a cautionary report from the Center for Responsible Lending on student checking accounts, usually linked to exclusive partnerships between colleges and banks. The report – go to – dings the accounts for charging high overdraft fees rather than declining the transaction. The heaviest student overdrafters averaged $700 in additional fees per year, the report found.

Financial Literacy Month also brought the announcement of free resources for K-12 teachers from the Council for Economic Education.

▪ The Online Assessment Center is designed to assess and strengthen the impact and effectiveness of financial and economic literacy education in classrooms.

▪ Math in the Real World integrates Common Core math standards with economics and personal finance lessons from “Break-Even Analysis” and “Profit Maximization” to payday loans and building good credit.

Find all the CEE educational resources online at

U.S. students run about middle of the pack in consumer savvy, the Program for International Student Assessment (better known as PISA) found. The test measured financial literacy for the first time in 2012. Find sample questions at

The test checked students’ understanding of fundamental fiscal concepts such as risk-taking, and their ability to make effective decisions across a range of money management issues, said Michael Davidson in a telephone interview. Davidson is head of schools for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Great Recession put in sharp relief the importance of having dollar-smart teens and young adults. Those with more moxie than money had the big home loans that fell apart first, speeding the economy’s downward spiral.

Job security has plummeted in a changing labor market, while a shift in political philosophy has led to shrinking welfare systems, increasing the personal responsibility we all have to keep our financial houses in order, Davidson pointed out.

At the same time, thanks to electronic card advances, it has never been easier to spend.

“Younger students are having to make key decisions, like which college to go to. There is access to financial products at younger ages,” he said. A little more than half of all U.S. teens, 51 percent, have a checking account by age 15, Davidson said.

To help, here are more online resources for families:

▪ The National Endowment for Financial Education ( requires registration, but downloads are free.

▪  The Financial Literacy & Education Commission offers for all ages, with links to the annual free credit report and a host of free information on protecting against scams, learning about advertising and shopping wisely. The site notes 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 65 has been the victim of fraud.

▪ is a free game to teach kids about advertising, with information for parents and lesson plans for teachers, a campaign by the Federal Trade Commission. The target age is tweens, ages 8 to 12. Besides their own spending, parents say their kids play a large role in family buying decisions, making children the target of advertising and marketing programs, the site says.

▪  Practical Money Skills ( is a free program sponsored by Visa, with information for parents and lesson plans for teachers.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.