In October 2021, Ohio governor Mike DeWine signed a bill requiring all high schoolers in the state to pass a standalone, half-credit personal finance course to graduate. Testimony from students like Caleigh Jacobs, a finance major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, played a big role in the passing of the legislation.
Jacobs, a Loveland, Ohio native, says her interest in personal finance began at a young age, when her family owned apartment buildings and sometimes provided housing for people from their church or family members who were struggling. In 2010, she witnessed extreme poverty while on a church trip to build homes in Haiti after an earthquake there. These early experiences opened her eyes to how quickly and drastically people’s material circumstances can change.
“Personal finance and poverty were really prevalent topics when I was growing up,” Jacobs says.
By the time she was a senior in high school, Jacobs knew she wanted to be a financial planner, and considered herself fortunate that her school offered a personal finance course. Her teacher, Brian Page, taught his students about bank accounts, tax returns, credit reports and other topics Jacobs knew they would use throughout their lives.
“A personal finance education has a tangible return on investment for students,” she says, four years after taking that class with Page. “I can’t fill out a periodic table anymore, but I can calculate a loan, compare interest rates and understand predatory lending.”
Jacobs recognizes that many young people have to make financial decisions without the educational advantages she has had. Many schools don’t cover such topics at all, while others offer personal finance as an elective or as a unit in another class such as social studies or math. Money, she notes, is still a taboo subject.
“A lot of families don’t talk about it, so people have to learn through trial and error,” she says. “For something like financial literacy, where decisions you make as a young person can affect the rest of your life, trial and error isn’t good enough.”
Working to Close the Financial Literacy Gap
After high school, Jacobs kept in touch with Page, who left his teaching job to work for Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that advocates for financial education. He reached out to Jacobs and other former students for testimony about what his class had meant to them. In her testimony, which was read to the Ohio state senate on her behalf while she was a sophomore at UT, Jacobs drew inspiration from coaching legend Pat Summitt and called for lawmakers to take responsibility for empowering the state’s students for financial success.
“If you don’t know whose job it is, it’s yours,” Jacobs wrote.
During her time at Haslam, she has continued to hone her financial and leadership skills, serving as a Bloomberg analyst in the Masters Investment Learning Center, manager of the LaPorte Torch Fund and president of UT’s Financial Management Association (FMA). She calls Haslam faculty members Laura Cole and Ryan Farley “incredible mentors” and is grateful for the connection to finance department advisory council member Joe Siragusa of Fidelity Investments. She interned at Fidelity in Knoxville in 2021 and will work there after her graduation in May.
“Caleigh is always focused on what she can do to make things better for herself, fellow students and her community,” Farley says. “She’s committed to generating opportunities for people to learn, work hard, adapt and succeed, just like she has.”
As she embarks on her financial planning career, and Ohio’s personal finance education mandate is set to take effect in the 2024-25 school year, Jacobs is grateful that she has already had the chance to contribute to closing the financial literacy gap.
“You don’t really know where life will take you if you pursue every opportunity you’re given, but it’s really exciting,” Jacobs says. “If you just take a little bit of courage and go for some of those opportunities, it’s amazing where you can end up.”
Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org