Financial Education for Undergrads

Fewer women than men are adept at money management. A pioneering program at Smith College proposes to remedy that

Imagine college courses that teach practical financial management and investing skills. I sure could have used some, but they just weren't available when I was in college in the early 1980s.

Fortunately, several women in a position to make a difference had the same notion. As a result, this fall, Smith College, an all-women's school in Northampton, Mass., will offer the first comprehensive financial education program aimed at undergraduates. The 6- to 10-week noncredit evening and weekend courses will have no prerequisites and will emphasize financial education. "It's important to get women interested in developing these lifelong skills and make the information relevant to them and their lives," says Laura D'Andrea Tyson, a 1969 Smith graduate who served on its board in 1997 and was one of the women who suggested such a program. Formerly head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton Administration, she is now dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley.

BACKING HER WORDS. No doubt there is a need for such an initiative. A just released Yankelovich Partners study done for Oppenheimer Funds found that 47% of single women aged 21 to 34 aren't very knowledgeable when it comes to investing, vs. 33% of single men. The same study found that 47% of single women have an unpaid balance on their credit card, vs. 38% of single men. Finally, 48% of all women in that age group say they live paycheck to paycheck, vs. 38% of men. "Women will never be seen as a force in our global economy unless they have financial management skills for both their professional and personal lives," comments Ann Kaplan, a Smith trustee who graduated from the school in 1967 and went on to become one of the first women partners at Goldman Sachs (GS ).

Kaplan is backing her words with her checkbook. She and Goldman Sachs are putting up $2.5 million to fund the program's launch. Last year, Kaplan urged the Smith faculty to draw up a formal proposal after she and college President Ruth Simmons discussed the idea. "The vast majority of women in our country are still in situations where men handle the money," says Kaplan. "I don't think there have been enough opportunities for women to learn basic financial skills."

Indeed, Kaplan's own research found that several grammar, middle, and high schools were offering good financial education programs. But such courses were sorely lacking at the college level. Smith's Women's Financial Education Program, which plans to offer four courses over the next school year, is designed to reverse that trend. For example, a course in financial decision-making will deal with budgeting and using financial planning simulation models. Another class will discuss current events in the financial markets and how they affect individuals. A third class will cover entrepreneurship. The last, principles of investing, will teach students how to analyze financial data such as corporate earnings reports, and how to understand asset allocation. Professors will teach the weekly classes, with guest lectures by financial leaders and alumnae.

The school expects to have no trouble attracting participants. In the past year, three student investment clubs have asked Mahnaz Mahdavi, the economics professor who will direct the program, to be their faculty adviser. "The time is right, the need is here, and the demand is here," she says.

For Smith, this is but a beginning. The school is using the seed money to create a Center for Women's Financial Education that aims to develop a model program for other institutions. "We hope it becomes so successful that it can go national," says Mahdavi. With the need well established, that wish couldn't come true soon enough.

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By Toddi Gutner

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