“So what do you want to learn about personal finance?” Five years into teaching college students, I still start each session with that question.

Invariably, the answer is “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Students are hungry for any information that will help them deal with the real world that they will face when they leave the “bubble.”

I knew teaching at a private liberal arts college would have its challenges.

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The very first time I taught personal finance to a group of college students, one of them proposed that everyone join “Occupy Student Loans,” vowing not to pay their loans back.

When I ask my students what they found most valuable in my personal finance classes, the answers are usually predictable. This past semester, I was surprised.

I held my horror in check, kept my cool, and steered the conversation towards legal ways to minimize the pain of student loans — the planned topic. I am no longer surprised by anything that comes up in the course of teaching.

Gauging Effectiveness in the Classroom

To gauge my effectiveness, I now ask a second question at the end of the term. I ask, “What are the one or two things you learned in this personal finance class that you think will be most useful to you?”

While the composition of each group is different, the most common answers to this question had been fairly consistent: the “hierarchy of savings” — or how to prioritize the various kinds of savings and how debt fits into that picture — and how taxes are calculated and paid.

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I was pleased. These are definitely important concepts, and I seemed to be communicating that effectively. Then I asked my last group of students the same question.

While tallying the answers at the end of the school year, looking for a clear winner, I didn’t find one.

My tally sheet of responses grew longer. The previous two top responses were on the list, but this time, the two topics mentioned the most were “retirement savings” (start asap) and “learning how to rebalance a portfolio.”

Okay, maybe this group actually read the book I assigned — William Bernstein’s If You Can, a guide to help millennials save for retirement. We practice rebalancing retirement portfolios according to Bernstein’s formula so that the students feel confident that they can manage this on their own.

Other Lessons Learned in Personal Finance

What else was important to them? Pretty much everything else we talked about in class:

  • Banking options; how and when to use a debit card.
  • How compounding works and how to make your money work for you.
  • Different types of investing.
  • How loans work.
  • How to buy a car.
  • Roth IRAs.
  • Learning that some types of debt are okay.
  • How to make a budget and how to know what I should spend on housing

Now I was thinking that perhaps I missed something important.

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What Do Students Want to Learn About in Personal Finance Class?

So I asked, “What did you want to learn that we did not cover?”

While many stated they wanted to learn more about analyzing, picking, and buying stocks (which I don’t think is appropriate for this class), the other common response really shocked me: many wanted a more in-depth discussion of the financial impact of marriage and family (and pets) on their lives.

I never expected 21- to 22-year-olds graduating from a private liberal arts institution to be thinking about marriage and kids.

I have been struggling to figure out what lesson to take away from these recent results. Does this mean that I am doing a better job of addressing the needs of a diverse group of students? I’d like to think so.

Were previous classes simply parroting what I may have subconsciously conveyed to be my take on the most important things?

I will continue to allow the students’ needs and interests to shape the class. But since they “don’t know what they don’t know,” I will still need to help them navigate a path through their future financial lives. As their leader, I just need to remain open to lots of detours en route.

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