Hopkins Academy prepares students for financial success with new graduation requirement

  • Nick Simmons hands out a quiz to his students in a personal finance class at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nick Simmons hands out a quiz to his students in a personal finance class at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A student works on a quiz in a personal finance class taught by Nick Simmons at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Megan Glazier takes a quiz last week in a personal finance class taught by Nick Simmons at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Thursday, March 16, 2017

HADLEY — The American economy is hard enough on millennials without leaving them unprepared to face it, at least according to Hopkins Academy.

The high school is making knowledge of personal finance a new graduation requirement.

Personal finance website NerdWallet reports that the average household debt from student loans, auto loans and credit cards is upward of $94,000. Meanwhile, the average savings rate for adults under 35 is at negative 2 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal. In short, millennials are swimming in debt and unprepared for future expenses.

According to the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy, the state’s youngest millennials aren’t getting education in how to avoid that situation. Massachusetts was one of 26 states to receive an “F” rating in efforts to produce high school graduates with knowledge about credit, investing and financial planning.

State legislators have introduced bills requiring education in financial literacy or economics, but Massachusetts does not yet include either in its MassCore graduation requirements.

This is part of what led Nicholas Simmons, a computer science and elective teacher at Hopkins, to ask the Hadley School Committee to require a class on personal finance for graduation.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Simmons — endearingly dubbed “Sir Simmons” by his students — designed a curriculum that teaches a philosophy of money and labor as a means of personal power; how to buy a home and invest for the future; and how to navigate taxes, loans and credit cards.

The School Committee voted Feb. 27 to make the course, already offered to Grades 10-12 as an elective, a requirement for the class of 2020. No extra money will be spent on offering this class — it was designed in-house by Simmons, replaces an elective and fits in with normal course scheduling.

Principal Brian Beck said he supported Simmons’ proposal because he believes in giving the next generation the knowledge they need to be financially stable in a competitive economy. He said his generation, Generation X, enjoyed disposable income and was never taught to save money.

“That created this conflict of no one leaving school with a basic financial understanding,” Beck said. “Every single person in American culture is left to be a victim in a capitalistic economy where you have to fend for yourself, yet we don’t give them the tools.”

Beck said he hopes Massachusetts will catch up to Hadley’s standards for financial education by making the class a requirement like physical and health education.

In anonymous testimonials given to the school committee, students praised the real-world skills they learned in the course, and said they felt more comfortable with their future afterward. Simmons’ personality, they said, makes potentially boring material entertaining.

“(Simmons) is full of energy, and makes learning about something like taxes fun,” said Hopkins Academy senior Sammy Fetler. “One minute we are learning about the stock market and the next he’s singing a song he made up about his laser pointer pen.”

Simmons said he gives students realistic information that prepares them to think logistically about their financial future.

He teaches lessons on taking out loans, saving for retirement and even uses a class period to make students prepare a mock tax return by hand.

“We talk about taking out college loans as investing in yourself, which is great,” Simmons said. “But we also talk about how not all college degrees are equal” when it comes to paying the bills.

Fetler said she values the course’s relevance as she begins to take on adult responsibilities like buying a car, paying for college and filing taxes.

“I feel like what I’m learning can be applied to real-life situations, unlike some of my other classes where the information I’m learning isn’t necessary,” Fetler said.

Simmons echoed this, saying that some required courses don’t offer the same “real-world” value as money management.

“We are required to teach things that aren’t as important as personal finance, so I’m lucky to work at a school that recognizes the importance of that,” Simmons said.

State legislators will review, by the end of the year, a bill requiring the education department to authorize and assist in implementing financial literacy requirements.

In the meantime, Beck and Simmons said they are unaware of any other schools in the area making similar moves towards financial literacy as a graduation requirement, but are proud to take the lead.

“Personal finance is like potty training,” Simmons said. “It’s not that important to some people, but if you don’t learn it your life’s going to be a mess.”