By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Alyse Pflanz calls financial literacy a “superpower.”
When students learn to make smart decisions with their money, it sets them up for success throughout their lives and helps them avoid the stressors that impact many adults.
“If we can teach students to manage their money better at a young age and develop an economic way of thinking, they’ll continue to make wise decisions as they get older,” said Pflanz, a lecturer in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Management and coordinator of the business teacher education program.
Pflanz also serves as director of the Center for Economic Education at UNK, a position that focuses exclusively on advancing economic and financial literacy in the state.
Part of the Nebraska Council on Economic Education, the center is a valuable resource for current and future K-12 teachers and students, ensuring they have access to high-quality curriculum and programming promoting money management, budgeting and investing.
Pflanz’s goal is to make economics and personal finance more fun.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for students to learn these important life skills,” she said. “One of our biggest focuses is training teachers to teach economics and personal finance in a way that students enjoy.”
The Center for Economic Education offers a variety of professional development opportunities and training workshops for K-12 educators that enhance their ability to teach these concepts. For example, about 20 teachers were on campus in December for an “Investing 101” workshop where they learned how to address this topic in an engaging way.
“It’s important to have a resource like this in central Nebraska. The Center for Economic Education provides access to a greater number of students and teachers and creates equitable opportunities across our state,” said Tennille Allison, the college and career readiness coordinator and FBLA adviser at Kearney Public Schools.
Instead of driving two or three hours to Lincoln and Omaha, teachers can stop by the UNK College of Business and Technology for assistance, saving them time and money. Because the center is funded primarily through donations, grants and sponsorships, these services are offered free of charge.
“We know teachers’ time is valuable and it can be difficult to attend workshops and professional development with everything else they have on their plates. Instead of them having to pay to attend our events, we incentivize their attendance with a stipend,” Pflanz said.
Allison called the center an important asset for area educators.
“The Center for Economic Education can support teachers in finding reliable, credible and valuable curriculum, lessons and activities to support this content,” she said. “This, in turn, provides value to the students because they get to use high-quality materials and have engaging experiences to learn about financial topics.”
That support will be even more impactful in the years ahead. State lawmakers approved a bill last year that requires high school students to complete at least one course in personal finance or financial literacy prior to graduation, beginning with the 2023-24 academic year.
This legislation is a “huge win,” according to Pflanz. “But that also means schools need to prepare their teachers and make sure they’re confident in their ability to teach all those students,” she said.
In response, Pflanz is launching a four-day Personal Finance Institute in July that allows teachers to gain national certification in this area. Teachers are also able to register for graduate credit as part of the institute, which is sponsored by the Nebraska Credit Union League.
The Center for Economic Education provides learning opportunities for students, too.
Thousands of high schoolers compete in the Nebraska Economics Challenge, Nebraska Personal Finance Challenge and Stock Market Game each year, and UNK hosts its own Loper Business Invitational. That event brought nearly 250 students from 24 schools to campus in February to network, develop their job interview skills and test their knowledge in a variety of business-related areas. The Loper Business Invitational helps students prepare for the FBLA State Leadership Conference and DECA State Career Development Conference.
Last week, UNK hosted a Nebraska Personal Finance Challenge regional competition, with five high school teams qualifying for the event based on their performances on the online exam. Each team presented a family financial plan to a panel of expert judges.
Additionally, Pflanz and the Nebraska Council on Economic Education recently partnered with Funding the Future to bring the nonprofit’s financial literacy tour to Grand Island Senior High School. Sponsored by Centris Federal Credit Union, the April 29 event included a rock concert and personal finance lessons for students. Other concerts occurred earlier this spring, including one Pflanz helped plan at Adams Central Public Schools.
The center also works with students and teachers in the Grand Island Senior High Academy of Business and Education and hosts Family Financial Fun Nights for elementary students and their families. These events, which are expanding to Kearney Public Schools in the fall, include hands-on activities that teach participants about money management.
The in-school savings program is another teaching tool for area school districts that allows students to learn about investing. Each school partners with a local bank, which provides money students use to open a savings account.
Thanks to sponsorships, all of these programs are offered at no cost to school districts and participants.
“We never want cost to be a hindrance,” Pflanz said.
The third branch of the center’s mission supports preservice teachers and other UNK students.
UNK senior Taylor Bunde, a business education major from Hastings, has benefited from this programming since her freshman year.
“I’ve had several opportunities to develop my resume, build my inventory of teaching resources and grow through professional development opportunities,” she said. “From assisting with the Loper Business Invitational to co-presenting during the FBLA Fall Leadership Conference, I’ve gained additional leadership skills and increased my involvement in education.”
Bunde also attended the “Investing 101” workshop, where she gained knowledge that will be incorporated into her future classroom lessons.
“Because of the Center for Economic Education and the opportunities it has provided, I feel even more prepared and confident to enter the world of education,” said Bunde, who student taught at Gibbon Public Schools this semester.
Pflanz is currently working on a couple programs specifically serving UNK students. “Bacon and Egonomics” will be a breakfast event where Lopers discuss current economic trends and network with finance professionals, opening the door to internship and job opportunities. During “Economics by the Pint,” students, faculty and community members are invited to talk economics while enjoying cold beer and live music. The first session is scheduled for Sept. 9 at Upper Room Brewery in Kearney.
“It will be the best economics class you never took,” Pflanz said.
Pflanz also created a local Financial Advisory Network to connect students with professionals and further promote financial literacy in K-12 education.
“We know financial and economic literacy changes the way people see the world and their roles in it. For the students and teachers we serve, a thorough understanding of economics will contribute not only to their personal success, but to the successes of the businesses, institutions and governments in which they participate,” she said. “This is why we are so passionate about educating young people about an economy they will work in, benefit from and ultimately inherit.”
The Nebraska Council on Economic Education oversees five centers at colleges and universities across the state, with the UNK location established in 1985. They reached more than 14,500 Nebraskans and provided over 115,000 hours of economic and financial literacy training in 2020-21.