UNO Receives $2M to Study Financial Literacy Programs

NEW ORLEANS — From the University of New Orleans:

UNO’s Urban Entrepreneurship and Policy Institute has been awarded a three-year, $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to examine the impact of high school financial education courses and to design more effective courses based on their findings.

Several states, including Louisiana, have passed laws that require high school students to complete a financial education course in order to graduate. However, little research has been done to examine how effective these courses are at helping students acquire the relevant knowledge and skills, said Chris Surprenant, professor of ethics, strategy, and public policy, and director of UNO’s Urban Entrepreneurship and Policy Institute.

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Surprenant; Gregory Price, economics and finance professor; and Marques Colston, former New Orleans Saints wide receiver and entrepreneur-in-residence at UNO’s Urban Entrepreneurship and Policy Institute, are spearheading the research.

As part of their research, a pilot program called Dollars to Dreams is underway at McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans. It aims to teach students financial literacy through the process of starting and operating a business.

“Most of the students are already running businesses — they’re cooking food, designing clothes, braiding hair, etc.,” Surprenant said. “We’re using their existing business and business experience as a starting point for the course.”

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In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards recently signed HB 103, which will require all high school students to take a course in financial literacy to earn a diploma.

“Legislators are passing these laws with the right intentions,” Surprenant said. “We do a disservice to high school students if they graduate without understanding basic concepts like interest and interest rates, how credit cards work, or how to contest a bill or charge. But data we collected during and after the pandemic suggests that high school students may not learn much in these classes, at least how they’re being taught right now.”

Price agrees. He said their initial findings suggested that students may acquire the relevant knowledge and skills connected to financial literacy better through the process of starting and operating a business than through a more traditional classroom setting.

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“We all agree that students need to learn these things,” Price said. “But we should figure out how best to structure these courses before automatically treating them like any other class.”

To test that hypothesis, Colston and Surprenant have launched “Dollars to Dreams,” an entrepreneurship and financial education program where participating students are eligible to receive dual-enrollment college credit through the University of New Orleans.

“The program is an opportunity to create a new paradigm,” said Colston, who has taught Leadership and Entrepreneurship as an adjunct professor at UNO. He has worked with Surprenant and Price over the past two years to identify possible problems with current financial education courses and how they can be addressed.

“The ‘Dollars to Dreams’ program goes beyond teaching numbers and budgets and aims to foster a mindset of possibilities,” Colston said. “We believe connecting financial education with entrepreneurship and business ownership can empower students with essential knowledge and experience to seize their futures.”

Colston, Surprenant and Wayne Encalarde, former director of small business growth and ecosystem development at the New Orleans Business Alliance, are piloting “Dollars to Dreams” at McDonogh 35 High School, which is part of the InspireNOLA Charter Schools system. Encalarde will teach the daily course, with assistance from Colston and Surprenant.  

“InspireNOLA and McDonogh 35 scholars are elated to start this opportunity,” said Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA Charter Schools. “Numerous McDonogh 35 scholars are starting their own businesses or want to start their own businesses, and they all need to learn how to make smart financial decisions. This is a wonderful opportunity for them, and we hope to expand this program to all InspireNOLA schools.”

Surprenant said they plan to expand the program to other schools in spring 2024 and for the 2024-2025 academic year.

“We’re thankful for the support of the John Templeton Foundation and are looking for additional school partners for the coming academic years,” Surprenant said. “In a few years, all Louisiana high school students will be required to take a course in this area. This new requirement should benefit the students of Louisiana, and we hope to help train educators teaching these courses so that they can have the greatest possible impact in the classroom.”

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