“Some of the students thought it was just a scam,” says Shianyisimi Ogede, a 10th-grade social studies teacher at Hillside High School in Durham.

She’s referring to her students’ initial reaction to a new curriculum on investing and the stock market that was introduced in her class in the fall of 2022. The program is offered to mostly low-income Title I schools through a nonprofit called First Generation Investors (FGI), the brainchild of a group of undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania who founded the organization in 2018. Volunteer undergraduates from local universities, from Duke in the case of the Durham Public Schools, teach the course. It made its debut in Durham, via Zoom, in the fall of 2021.

The kicker: in addition to an introduction to how markets work, students receive $100 in real money to invest, money they get to keep when they finish the program, graduate from high school, and turn 18 years old.

Some level of skepticism is not uncommon at the beginning, says Niso Nahmiyas, the Duke student who leads the local program. A rising senior, he is the child of immigrants (his father is from Turkey, his mother Colombia). 

“With some of the students there’s the attitude that ‘What, you’re here to save me and you’re going to do it with 100 bucks?’”

But, he says, that negativity quickly dissipates once the classes start.

Ogede agrees. The students see that “it [the stock market] is not just for rich people. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s something they can do,” she says.

What is a stock?

The curriculum begins with the basics: What is a stock? How do markets work? 

It goes on to cover the benefits of diversification (owning a range of assets or a broad-based mutual fund, for example), volatility (the market’s ups and downs), and dollar-cost averaging (investing regularly to even out the price paid for a stock, bond, or mutual fund), among other topics. It includes sections on bonds as well as stocks and on exchange-traded funds, a type of pooled investment like a mutual fund. It ends with a requirement that students research and assemble their own hypothetical portfolios.

“It’s called First Generation Investors because most of these kids’ parents haven’t had the chance to learn what they’re learning,” says Nahmiyas. “The goal is to stop the cycle of some people working hard and investing and others working just as hard but never having the opportunity to accumulate wealth.”

A new approach to wealth inequality

Decades of study and untold amounts of hand-wringing have so far done little to address the issue of wealth inequality in the United States. There is all kinds of data to support this, but maybe the most compelling number is that, as of the end of 2022, the top 10 percent of U.S. households had 68 percent of total household wealth, most of that concentrated in the hands of the top 1 or 2 percent, while the bottom 50 percent had just 3 percent of the total household wealth, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

In his latest book, Poverty, by America, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Matthew Desmond writes that over the last 50 years the poverty rate in the United States has barely budged, falling from 12 percent in 1970 to 11 percent in 2019. 

Whatever your politics, this lack of progress is alarming. To fix this, those on the left might cite a need for higher taxes; more programs to address shortcomings in education, housing, and health care; and a greater redistribution of wealth generally. Those on the right will point to the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent over that period to apparently little effect.

Given the seeming intractability of the problem, why not try something different? 

If its rapid growth is any indication, FGI does appear to be fulfilling a need. From a single high school in Philadelphia the program has expanded to 63 schools around the country, including three in Durham in the latest spring semester. There were 530 program graduates through the spring of this year, according to FGI. In addition to Duke, participating colleges include Atlanta’s Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, the University of Southern California, and UNC-Chapel Hill, among many others.

In Durham, the first FGI classes were held during the COVID year of 2021 and offered exclusively over Zoom. There was no requirement to participate—students had to opt in. The inaugural program had 20 participants from Hillside High School and 12 from Jordan High School.

As COVID became less of a worry and students returned to class, this ad hoc approach gave way to something more systematic. This was due in part to legislation that the state passed in 2019 that required all high school students to complete a course in economics and personal finance (EPF), beginning with the graduating class of 2024. Most personal finance courses tend to focus on topics like credit cards, car loans, and mortgages and other forms of borrowing, with only cursory attention paid to the stock market and investing. The FGI program provided the opportunity to remedy that with a ready-made eight-week curriculum that could be quickly introduced into the classroom.

Following her experience with FGI, Ogede reached out to Charlene Martin-Klein, a social studies curriculum specialist for grades K–12. 

“She [Ogede] saw how our students were responding to the Duke volunteers and their passion [for the subject matter] and the power of these near-peer interactions,” Martin-Klein says. “We thought it would be a great resource.”

Bella Mitchell, a rising senior at Riverside High School, was one of the school’s first students to participate in an EPF class, in the fall of 2022. Typical among FGI participants, she had little exposure to investing or the markets prior to the class. “It was one of the first classes I thought would have importance in the outside world,” she says. “One hundred percent, everyone should be exposed to this.”

Bella Mitchell, a rising senior at Riverside High School Credit: Photo by Brett Villena

Here as elsewhere, the concept that tends to get everyone’s attention is compounding—the idea that a small amount of money invested now can grow into something more substantial over time. 

“At their age [18 years old or younger], an investment of $1 compounding at 10 percent a year over 47 years will be worth $88 when they turn 65,” says David Norman, who chairs the social studies department at Riverside and has helped pilot the EPF program. A former stockbroker, Norman is a big supporter of financial education and holds an annual workshop on financial fitness for his fellow Durham Public Schools instructors.

No matter whether they’re going off to an Ivy League college or entering the workforce after high school, “they all need this information [about the markets],” Norman says. “The kids on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, those working at Bojangles 30 hours a week, they’re the ones who are eager to find out how this money stuff works.”

While the $100 provided to graduates won’t on its own make anyone rich, it does bring a tangibility to what would otherwise be an abstract exercise. “They know $100 is not a tremendous amount of money, but it makes it more real,” says Martin-Klein. “And they will have access to it when they graduate.”

Mitchell agrees.

“Getting the $100 to invest was really fun,” she says.

Can it work?

Over the past few decades trends in technology have made it simpler and cheaper to save and invest. 

There are, for example, multiple microsavings apps like Acorns, Stash, and Qapital that allow individuals to automatically set aside small amounts of money that they can use to buy shares in a stock or mutual fund. The ability to buy what are known as “fractional shares,” essentially a part of a share, dramatically lowers the price of entry (you can by one-third of a share of a $300 exchange-traded fund for $100, for example). But for many lower-income families, the markets remain a mystery. While about 60 percent of adult Americans owned stock as of mid-2023, those in the bottom 50th percentile owned just 0.6 percent of the shares, according to Gallup. The top 1 percent held more than half. The rich get richer.

“I start with the money. I tell them the great equalizer is that money is not black. It’s not white. It’s green. It’s a tool. The question is, if the game is ‘rigged,’ how do you play the game? How do you make your money work for you?”

“Across three of my classes I can count on one hand the number of kids who have a clue about any of this,” says Norman. “Wealth inequality is education inequality, too.” 

In his EPF course, Norman quickly cuts to the chase. 

“I start with the money,” he says. “I tell them the great equalizer is that money is not black. It’s not white. It’s green. It’s a tool. The question is, if the game is ‘rigged,’ how do you play the game? How do you make your money work for you?”

Nationally and in the Durham school system, the FGI program is still in its infancy. While the data so far is encouraging, it is far from conclusive. The sample size of graduates is still small. And, of course, investing is not without risk; markets go down as well as up. 

But Durham, at least, has seen enough to continue moving ahead. While the FGI program is not yet a district-wide mandate, the hope is to expand it to reach around 250 students a semester in the 2023–24 school year across the 9th through 12th grades, according to Martin-Klein. About 172 students have been through the program so far.

“It’s really important they are giving students a chance to do this authentically rather than through a simulation,” says Martin-Klein. “We hope that seeing their portfolios grow will create a lifelong habit of saving and investing.”

While many agree that the lack of progress in closing the wealth gap in the United States is discouraging—destabilizing from a social standpoint and without a uniform solution—programs like FGI can be “one piece of the puzzle,” in Norman’s view.

As with anything, there’s room for improvement. Norman cites an overemphasis on “buy low, sell high,” always easier said than done. Mitchell, the Riverside student, adds that “it would be cool to see some diversity in that program [among the FGI tutors]. Everyone’s experience is going to be different.”

Nonetheless, Norman says, “it’s a hopeful message.” 

FGI is not the only organization working to introduce economically underserved Durham residents to the concept of financial literacy. MaKayla Booker, a Durham native who splits her time between here and Atlanta, founded Wall Street Juniors in 2018 to do something similar on a grassroots level. The group focuses on building wealth and fostering entrepreneurship as a way to address intergenerational inequities, holding classes in locations around the city including at Seed Garden and the Cornwallis community neighborhood.

But regardless of who is doing the teaching, providing students with an understanding of the time value of money is critical. As Ogede says about the FGI program, “Putting money to work in the 10th grade gives it that much longer to grow. 

This should be helpful, she says, “when it comes to closing the income inequality gap, a social justice kind of thing. It’s an awesome opportunity for the kids.

“It would be good if every student is given the opportunity to invest before they leave high school.”

Mike MacMillan is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill. He writes regularly on financial issues at his Substack, “Ask Archer.”

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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