SAN FRANCISCO — Pledging to make the next generation of consumers better educated about money than their parents, Wells Fargo Bank has introduced a financial literacy program aimed at students in fourth grade and above.
The San Francisco-based bank, which developed the curriculum with the nonprofit group Operation Hope, plans to educate 100,000 students in classrooms across the country during the next year.
In addition to sending 200 employees to teach the basics of money management, Wells also is dispatching 45-foot-long buses equipped with computer terminals that provide wireless Internet access to a new Web site devoted to the program, dubbed “Banking On Our Future.”
The site features an animated money management primer for fourth and fifth graders, as well as more advanced sections for junior high and high school students.
Wells CEO Dick Kovacevich described the project as the most ambitious financial literacy program undertaken by a major U.S. bank.
“We know this is something that students are going to eat up,” Kovacevich said in an interview Tuesday.
Although they agree schools need to do a better job educating kids about money management, consumer activists are leery of Wells’ involvement in the program. With $298 billion in assets and 5,400 branches, Wells is the largest bank headquartered west of the Mississippi.
“It’s like the fox guarding the chicken coop when you send banks into the classrooms,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C. “We have seen banks all over college campuses trying to sell their credit cards, and now it looks like we are going to be seeing them all over our playgrounds.”
Wells isn’t trying to promote its own products through the programs, Kovacevich said.
“We have been doing this in a minor way for years,” he said. “We just thought it was the right time to put this together in a major way. It’s in everybody’s best interests if people are better educated about money.”
The Wells brand appears on credit cards, checks and financial statements displayed as part of the online education program developed with Redwood City-based SmartForce.
The bank’s self-promotion is troubling, said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore., consumer group that has fought to keep corporate influence out of classrooms.
“Financial literacy is a noble goal, but this program has no place in schools. This is just a Trojan horse for marketing credit cards and other products,” Ruskin said.
Recent surveys have documented the financial illiteracy of most students when they graduate from high school.
High school seniors scored 51.9 percent — a failing grade — in a money management test taken last year by the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. Last year’s results represented a decline from the average score of 57.3 percent — also a failing grade — in the previous test taken by the coalition in 1997.
Only a handful states, including Idaho, Illinois and Pennsylvania, have introduced financial education into their curriculum, JumpStart said.
With so much ground to make up, Wells’ project should be embraced instead of reviled, said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. The congressman hopes to include a financial literacy grant program in an education bill under consideration by lawmakers.
“Adults aren’t doing a good job demonstrating their own financial aptitude,” Pomeroy said. “We can’t afford to live in an economy with low savings rates and high default rates (on credit card loans). Wells understands that an informed consumer is the best business plan of all.”
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