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Class Helps Students Learn How to Avoid Debt

With record numbers pursuing higher education and rising tuition costs at most universities, debt among people in their 20s is a growing problem.

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However, a financial education program used in more than 50 classrooms in the Big Country is seeking to prevent adult money troubles before students even graduate high school.

Banzai was founded in 2007, designed to teach middle school and high school students to manage money.

Martha Watson, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Jim Ned High School, is using the program for the second time this year in a class titled Principles of Human Services. She said that in her experience, exposure to financial education varies greatly among students by the time they get to high school.

“Some of them really caught on quick, some of them really struggled with it, but everybody was able to complete the program,” she said.

The online curriculum takes students through 30 real life scenarios, according to co-founder Morgan Vandagriff.

“A lot of students, to be honest, are living in homes that have faced a lot of financial difficulties in recent years,” he said. “They’ve decided they want to do everything in their power to avoid that when they grow up.”

Vandagriff explained that when he created Banzai, he realized that young people who wait until after they acquire debt often struggle to become productive, successful adults. The purpose of the program is to keep them out of debt from the beginning.

Watson said the real-life scenarios give students an opportunity to decide for themselves how they might spend their money after they graduate high school or move away from their parents.

“They have a job, an apartment they have to pay for, food they have to buy, they have to create a budget and stay in it,” she said of the program. “Some of these kids have never heard of that. It’s like Mom and Dad give me money and that’s all they know.”

In her experience teaching, she said she has discovered that many high school students do not have a basic understanding of money management.

“I think it’s vitally important for these kids to realize that just because they have checks in the checkbook doesn’t mean they have money,” she said. “It’s especially important in the economic environment we’re in now. If they don’t have a good concept of money and how to handle it, they’ll be out in the real world wondering what to do.”

According to a USA Today analysis, nearly two-thirds of young people in their 20s carry some debt, and those with debt have taken on more in the past five years.

The analysis shows that in 2006, the average amount of money owed by each of the approximately 63 percent of young people in debt totaled $16,120 per person.

The Banzai program has been made available to local schools at no cost thanks to Communities of Abilene Federal Credit Union, which has picked up the bill for about 55 classrooms on more than 30 Big Country campuses, Vandagriff said.

The nationwide program currently is being used in about 3,000 schools in all 50 states.

Jaime Ince, a career and technology education teacher at Sweetwater High School, said the program has been instrumental in giving her students a better idea of what to expect after high school.

“I ask a lot of students, ‘Do you have a checking account?’ and ‘How do you manage your money?'” she said. She found the answers from her students alarming.

Many of them don’t understand how a checking account works and do not know how to write a check, she said. The scenarios in the program range from taking out a loan for a car to understanding monthly requirements like rent.

Students use the scenarios in an online interface, she said, and she grades their homework on the Web, as well.

She said 11th and 12th-graders benefit the most from the program because they will need to be able to recall the information after graduation.

“I think they get into financial trouble,” she said of students who graduate without a basic knowledge of finances. “They get into debt or they can’t afford to provide for themselves. It can be very serious if they don’t have a working knowledge of how to pay for basics.”

Teachers interested in using the Banzai program can visit or call 888-8-BANZAI.

Banzai interactive courses are fun and FREE. Go ahead.