Eighth grade students in a classroom.

Eighth grade students in a classroom. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sets out to reform America’s underperforming public schools, let’s hope she puts their appalling lack of personal finance instruction near the top of her priority list. Our nation’s high schools are flunking badly when it comes to imbuing their students with the key elements of financial literacy.

A 2016 study by the Council for Economic Education found that only 17 states require high school students to take courses in personal finance.

That’s particularly distressing when you consider that the final year of high school is, for many young people, the last great opportunity to acquire financial literacy before entering today’s costly, complex and rapidly changing world.

Personal finance courses don’t require teachers with advanced degrees. Almost any teacher who can balance a checkbook can follow some already successful course guidelines to impart financial basics to graduating seniors.

“To be successful, most kids don’t need to learn about collateralized debt instruments, but they do need to know how to open a bank account, how much they need to save each month to reach their goals and, if they borrow this amount of money, how much money they will need to earn to pay it back,” said Nan J. Morrison, president and CEO of the Council for Economic Education, in an interview with CNBC following the report’s release.

She and other personal finance advocates are responsible for many of the recent gains made in the establishment of what some call “everyday economics” in high school classrooms.

In 1998, only 14 states required that high schools give their seniors a rudimentary knowledge of personal finance. Now 37 states do, meaning more students are receiving finance lessons in their civics and math classes.

And over the last few years, populous states like New York and Illinois have toughened standards. Washington state has new legislation doing the same.

But while more states are implementing personal finance standards, the number of states that require high school students to take an actual course in personal finance - 17 - has remained unchanged since 2014, according to the study.

That’s truly unfortunate. The states with the most rigorous personal finance requirements send their students on to college and into the real world with a measureable head start.

Data recently released by the Investor Education Foundation show high school students who passed mandatory personal finance courses have better-than-average credit scores and lower debt delinquency rates as young adults.

The IEF study found “notable improvements” in credit outcomes for young adults ages 18-22 in three states - Idaho, Georgia and Texas - where financial education mandates are considered rigorous by the Council for Economic Education.

Personal finance courses provide an important leg-up to students in low-income areas with lagging schools.

A key driver of the perpetuation of poverty is that young people in economically challenged areas are often unemployed or underemployed and find themselves at the mercy of loan sharks and payday loans with stratospheric interest rates.

Hemmed in by poverty, recent graduates in these communities find themselves struggling to pay bills and manage what little money they have.

As Morrison told CNBC: “Exposure is everything. When you learn good habits, you tend to have better outcomes.”

K. Alexander Ashe is the CEO and founder of Spendcast, a tech firm that develops finance-focused apps.