Little Falls high school team best in the nation on personal finance

Little Falls Community School team, left to right: students Kayla Plante, Oliver Carrillo, Ben Surma and Olivia Warner.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Council on Economic Education
Little Falls Community School team, left to right: students Kayla Plante, Oliver Carrillo, Ben Surma and Olivia Warner.

After a bit of prodding from social studies teacher Tom Stockard, four Little Falls Community High School seniors who didn’t think they knew much about personal finance ended up improving their own personal finances last week by $1,000 each.

The Minnesota team — Oliver Carrillo, Kayla Plante, Ben Surma and Olivia Warner — took top honors in the first-ever National Personal Finance Challenge, held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo.

The Little Falls teens were among nearly 5,000 high school students who competed over several months for the chance to go to Kansas City. The final contest also included teams from Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska,  Oklahoma and Tennessee.

They were tested on topics ranging from money management, budgeting, saving and investing to spending, banking, insurance and credit. The Minnesota teens led throughout the three-round competition, 4-2, 10-6 and finally 12-7 in a “quiz bowl” finale against a Missouri team.

The teens were peppered with questions such as:

  • What is the rate of return for a $34 share of stock which pays a $3 annual dividend? (A: 8.8%)
  • What is a long-term retirement product that makes a series of regular payments at regular intervals over time? (A: annuity)
  • According to the IRS, what is the maximum amount you are allowed to give any number of individuals every year, without facing any gift taxes? (A: $13,000)
  • What regulation governs the amount of credit that can be advanced to customers to purchase securities (so-called “margin requirements”)? (A: Regulation T)
  • What is it called when you make an impromptu purchase without considering your needs, goals and the consequences of the purchase? (A: impulse buying)

Their teacher, Tom Stockard, said the students were reluctant to enter the contest at first because they had not taken a personal finance class. But he urged them to “give it a try,” explaining that their economics studies and problem-solving skills were all they needed to be competitive.

“I don’t teach personal finance,” he explained, saying the students did not have a textbook to study from. Describing himself as “fairly inept when it comes to these financial terms in personal finance,” Stockard credited the four students with researching online and. teaching themselves about personal finance.

Tom Stockard
Tom Stockard

“Each helps the other out,” he said. “There’s a perception that these are bright kids and it comes easy, but they put a lot of time into it” after school and on weekends, he said. And they love to compete, he added.

Minnesota has become something of a powerhouse on the high school economics scene. Last year, another group of Little Falls seniors beat out more than 2,000 teams from to become the national champions in a separate competition focused on economics. And it’s not just Little Falls. Minnesota students from around the state reached the national competition in seven of the 10 years of competition, more than any other state.

Earlier this year, four students from Moorhead High School won the overall state championship and came in seventh in the nation, just missing a chance for a trip to New York to compete for the national title in economics. The Little Falls team had also won state honors in their division for the economics challenge, but only one team could go to the nationals.

 “We have a terrific bench of economics teachers across the state,” observed Claudia Parliament, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on Economic Education, which organizes the state competition. The first-ever national competition for personal finance was sponsored by Wells Fargo Advisors and organized by the Missouri Council on Economic Education.

Stockard, a 17-year social studies teacher, credits both the state-mandated requirement for half a semester of economics and the teacher training offered by the Minnesota Council on Economic Education for “propelling economic education in the state.” Even though the economics class is usually taken in the senior year, Stockard said, it “opens student eyes to a new science, the science of scarcity.”

The four students were “somewhat surprised” to win, Stockard admitted. “I’m proud of the kids. I’m proud of the state.”

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