In fall of 2021, the Wharton School, in collaboration with the National Education Equity Lab began offering the course Essentials of Personal Finance, which was designed to teach personal finance concepts and financial decision-making to disadvantaged high school students. Across 10 weeks, students learned everything from defining and calculating simple and compound interest, to how the U.S. tax system works, to exploring ways to fund higher education and negotiate the best available financial aid packages.
This pilot program marked the beginning of a broader effort to involve more high school students and educators with the Wharton Global Youth Program, which creates and implements Wharton-developed programs and courses for pre-college students to learn about business and finance. In January 2021, Wharton Global Youth launched the Wharton Pre-Baccalaureate Program, the school’s first dual-enrollment opportunity offering college credits to high school students. The new Essentials of Personal Finance course leverages the Education Equity Lab partnership to extend the reach of Pre-Baccalaureate to underserved communities in the U.S.
“It is an exciting opportunity to connect the world-class research and teaching of Wharton’s faculty and scholars directly to the high school classroom,” says Wharton Global Youth Executive Director Eli Lesser. “Our collaboration with the Education Equity Lab has been incredibly powerful as we try to inspire more students and educators to discover business and finance education and develop skills that will last a lifetime.”
A network of students, educators, and teaching assistants were fundamental to the success of the Essentials of Personal Finance course. Wharton provided asynchronous materials that the students accessed in their high school classrooms with the help of designated high school co-teachers. Once a week, each class also synchronously and remotely met with a Wharton MBA teaching assistant assigned to their class. The teaching assistants created lesson plans, taught classroom concepts, and monitored student progress.
David Musto, the Ronald O. Perelman Professor in Finance at Wharton, worked closely with the various stakeholders and MBA students to develop and execute the course. Musto, also faculty director of Wharton’s Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance, says he especially recognized the value of teaching high-school students personal finance concepts such as the compounding of interest, and addressing their important life decisions, such as the financing of college.
“Financial literacy is such an important skill that is not taught enough,” Musto says. “I was proud of the impact that the course had on talented students from financially stressed communities around the country. They realized what they were capable of achieving when they mastered the elements of a Wharton course in high school.”
Wharton Dean Erika James delivered keynote remarks at the opening ceremony in September 2021 for students and their families, spotlighting why Wharton was committed to help lead this effort.
“I am so utterly inspired,” she said. “At the Wharton School, we have a tremendous responsibility to impact the pipeline of future business leaders so that it more accurately reflects the world around us. Our partnership with the National Education Equity Lab mobilizes the extensive opportunities of the Wharton academic community to educate and inspire students in historically underserved communities.”
Wharton alumnus and trustee Michael Klein, the founder and managing partner of M. Klein and Company who sits on Wharton’s Board of Advisors, addressed members of the Wharton community, high school students, and National Education Equity Lab partners at the program’s closing ceremonies in December 2021.
“What you’ve done with this first course will be the beginning of what I think will be an extraordinary partnership with National Education Equity Lab,” he said at the time. “A lot of universities talk about inclusion, equity, and access. But very few universities act on it the way Dean James has. I am massively proud of the team from Wharton, from Dean James to the teaching fellows.”
Sebastian Dibenedetto, a sophomore from Engineering & Science University Magnet High School in New Haven, Connecticut, says that the course “heavily impacted” his life.
“I am proud to say that I am going to be the first in my family to go to college, and it is opportunities like this that set me on the right path and gave me the confidence that I need,” he says. “No matter what profession you go into, we will all use the lessons taught in Professor Musto’s course.”
Camren Daley, a senior from Manchester High School in Manchester, Connecticut, expressed his appreciation and shared the profound influence this opportunity has had on him.
“I’m extremely grateful to the Wharton School and the National Education Equity Lab because this program has changed all of our lives,” he says. “This will live with us for generations. Honestly, who would think that kids like me could come to the Wharton School and absolutely succeed?”
Marissa Sawicki, a Wharton MBA teaching assistant, recalls traveling by train to New Haven to surprise her students for an in-person last class—complete with pizza.
“Participating in Wharton's partnership with the National Ed Equity Lab has been a highlight of my time at Penn so far,” Sawicki notes. “Witnessing the passion, intelligence, and talent of the high school students, particularly as they learned a topic as daunting as collegiate finance, left me feeling inspired and hopeful. I can’t wait to cheer on my students in their coursework in college and beyond.”
At the end of this course, students earn transferable college credits from Wharton at no cost to them or their families.
Vivian Gonda Zelter, a 1985 alumna of the College of Arts & Sciences who is the director of strategic partnerships at National Education Equity Lab, also served as the course manager.
“I am inspired to have participated firsthand in this extraordinary partnership with Wharton,” she says. “Underserved high school students are eager to learn about finance, whether it’s cryptocurrency or student loans, and Wharton is unquestionably fulfilling this need across the country.”
The Education Equity Lab supports minority students and schools where at least 40% of students are from low-income families. The goal is to address under-matching, a term in college admissions to describe well-qualified disadvantaged students who choose less-challenging institutions or decide not to attend college at all.
“Everyone involved in this partnership has demonstrated the power of Wharton’s participation in this class,” says Leslie Cornfeld, CEO and founder of the National Education Equity Lab. “Wharton is helping to level the playing field for high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds by empowering them to advance and demonstrate college readiness, to admissions offices and themselves.”
This opportunity is part of a national education justice effort that Wharton is helping to lead nationwide.