Billy Hensley is president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, a leading research organization in the financial literacy community. He recently assumed that role, and while he says most things at NEFE will remain status quo he acknowledges a special interest in behavioral finance research. He also alludes to big changes in the regulatory world, saying financial capability is critical to helping consumers through policy shifts at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and elsewhere. Right About Money asked Hensley five questions.
Question: How will NEFE priorities change under your leadership?
Answer: NEFE’s top priority will remain the same: increase the financial literacy of all Americans and provide access to quality educational resources. Some tactics may evolve based on the ever-changing needs of the learner and consumer. We want our peers in the financial education community to identify and coalesce around common measures of success. In addition to supporting other educators in their efforts, we will continue to listen to consumers and our colleagues in the field and be responsive to their needs.
Q: What is the biggest policy roadblock to a more money savvy U.S. population?
A: We pay close attention to how states are offering youth financial education programs. Every state is doing it differently and there are large disparities in quality and rigor. In a perfect world, every student in every state would learn in school about managing money. We can point to champions in every state. But we need to do a better job training teachers, providing access to well-designed curricula, and setting objectives. A one-time, six-week class will not solve the problem. Financial capability comes from a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and experiences.
Government policies tied to improving consumer decision making ebb and flow. But a financially literate consumer is always empowered to advocate for herself. The best scenario for the average American occurs when educational experiences, safe choices, and regulations point individuals toward positive financial behaviors.
Q: What areas of research have the greatest potential to stir policy and programs that will make a difference in the financial literacy of Americans?
A: Meaningful data directs our research agenda. Everyone in the community should be asking, “How do we know if we are making a difference?” We are here to encourage and support people from all walks of life, and robust research guides us to better identify and understand the challenges faced by everyone from youth to retirees. We remain intrigued by studies that interpret behaviors so that we can…
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…develop learning experiences that seek to improve financial decision making. If we are not helping people improve their financial life then what’s the point of our work?
Q: What groundbreaking initiatives can we look for from NEFE in your first year?
A: NEFE has a legacy of connecting with partners who share our vision of helping Americans live more financially secure lives. We will continue to reach out to those who advocate for financial capability. We’re going to ask people what they’re thinking and collaborate to meet common goals. Above all we will listen, and that will navigate our strategy and goal setting in my first year leading this great organization.
Q: If you had to choose just one area of financial education to support, would it be school-based, home-based, or work-based?
A: It’s not an either/or situation. All of these areas are equally important and NEFE works within all three of these spheres. If we had identified one area more important than another we would have focused wholly on that. We have to meet people where they are. That starts in the home, is reinforced in schools, and should extend into the workplace. We know from the research we’ve funded that to be effective financial instruction must be rigorous, timely, and relevant. Financial decisions are made throughout our entire life, and continuous education should always be there. NEFE will provide unbiased, high-quality information and fund research that improves understanding for each of those life stages.