Q&A | Economics and Education: A Conversation with Courtney Epting

Courtney Epting

Courtney Epting works with SC Economics, a support system for South Carolina teachers that is partnered with the South Carolina Department of Education. SC Economics provides free professional development opportunities to teachers that help them to build confidence in what they teach, and a deeper understanding of how economics can be used in the classroom. SC Economics also focuses on students in grades K-12, providing games and competitions, which promote interest in economics and provide skills that are useful in life. 

Q: Why are financial literacy and economic education important in the rising generation?

A: At the base of economic education is a foundation for effective decision-making. If we can instill in our youth the idea that there is a cost-benefit analysis that should be associated with every decision, then those same youth are a little more prepared for the decisions of adulthood. For instance, understanding human capital and the job market may offer students a better understanding of what career path to take and the education needed to reach that goal. Financial literacy is a small but very personal subset of economics. Financial literacy directly impacts individuals on a daily basis. Banking, saving, investing, career decisions/job choices, transportation, housing, living expenses (food and clothing), and budgeting. All of these choices require personal decisions, and there are personal consequences associated with each choice. Some consequences are short-term (spent my allowance) others are long-term (bought a car). Young people must prepare for their own futures and prepare for the unexpected challenges ahead. New technologies will make part of life much easier, but at the same time, it makes protecting ones’ assets even more challenging.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges the education system is facing, when it comes to financial literacy and economic education?

A: One of the greatest challenges for the education system is creating a consistent, standard message that economic education and financial literacy are important, while also finding a way to integrate them into the existing mandated curricula. Teachers and students already have so much material that needs to be covered—English, Mathematics, Social Studies, etc., that it becomes difficult to add a class on economics or financial literacy. In South Carolina, we do require students to take a one-half credit course in economics to graduate; the course is broken up into five economic standards, one of which is personal finance. In addition, economic concepts are integrated throughout the K-12 standards in Social Studies courses. However, only 20 states require high school students to take a course in economics, and only 17 are required to take a full course in personal finance, in order to graduate. When economic education and financial literacy are required as a formal course, teachers are trained on the content and are given support by the community and the educational system.

Another concern is trying to determine the best way to deliver financial literacy to students. Many studies have shown that to make financial literacy “sticky” for students, it needs to be in a place and time that makes the material relate to their life. For instance, teaching about W-2s, taxes, and retirement income may not be the best subjects to discuss with elementary-age students, whereas working high school seniors are more invested in learning and retaining information. In a study conducted in 2012, teenagers from 18 counties were assessed on their financial literacy skills. More than one in six students in the United States failed to reach the baseline level of proficiency in financial literacy. (OECD (2014). PISA 2012 Results: Students and Money: Financial Literacy Skills for the 21st Century (Volume VI). PISA, OECD Publishing.) American students fall in the middle of the pack. It is becoming apparent that we must do a better job of making sure our young people have better financial behaviors.

Q: How did you personally get involved in SC Economics?

A: I decided after working in Georgia for a while that it was time for me to return home to my South Carolina roots. I knew I wanted to get involved with a nonprofit, and as I scanned through job positions, I landed on one for SC Economics. I grew up in Cayce, a small town right outside of Columbia, in a lower middle-class family. Money management was something that my parents were very adamant that my brother and I learn, as we were growing up. The conversation about finances was always open. As I entered college and the years following graduation, I saw many of my peers struggle with poor decisions with credit card debt, payday loan facilities and technology scams. The mission and goals of the South Carolina Council on Economic Education (SC Economics) were in line with a need that I had already identified as a struggle for peers and the community at large. At the time, SC Economics’ main mission was to provide professional development opportunities for teachers to help enhance students’ understanding of financial literacy and economics, so that by the time the student left high school, he/she would be better able to navigate financial decisions. In my inquiry about the job position, I shared how important I found sound decision-making to be, in order to lead a prosperous life. Specifically, I discussed the opportunity cost of saving money or purchasing a sweater that was on sale. Three-and-a-half years later, I’m still here and still very much believe in what this organization has accomplished and plans to accomplish. 

Q: How can students and teachers proactively work toward greater economic education?

A: Studies show that most adults, including teachers, already recognize that economics, to include financial literacy, is a very important life skill. Our traditional approach to education with emphasis on the three R’s or STEM, or STEAM, has resulted in the discipline of economics being squeezed out, due to the theoretical method of instruction and time limitations in the classroom. In reality, economics is the study of choices. It is interdisciplinary. All other disciplines, Mathematics, Science, English, Engineering, are included in the study of economics. We make choices many times each day and live with the consequences. By putting economics in the context of solving a problem with all the research, communication and academic skills associated with decision-making, the students can see value in the skills that they learn, and the transition to the job market will be easier.

Q: How can the community work to improve financial literacy in the rising generation?

A: We must all recognize that economics, to include financial literacy, is a critical life and career-ready requirement. Engaging students through single-strand disciplines often fails to immerse the student in the complexity and relevancy of an issue. Solving a problem often requires math skills, but math skills seldom solve a problem. Innovative engagement between business and teachers, as well as business and student, will help. The community should bring the issues and problems into the classrooms. This brings knowledge, and mentoring skills into the classroom. Simultaneously, it opens the eyes of students to consider more career options.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to improve his or her financial literacy?

A: Lots of books and papers have been written about the many components of financial literacy. Googling any question will provide answers and resources. SC Economics has been in the business of helping teachers for many years. Get involved in the classroom. Start your own stock market game. Play one of the many financial literacy online games. The resources are out there. Don’t be hesitant to start looking.