A majority of American teenagers believe that one of the biggest challenges to achieving financial success is the cost of higher education, a survey from Junior Achievement finds.
They are also concerned about a general lack of understanding of how money, investing and the economy works, with 46% citing it as a major barrier to financial security. Other challenges include gender and racial pay gaps (45%) and unequal education (42%).
Overall, 51% said they don't believe everyone is presented with equal opportunities to achieve financial success.
"It is just frustrating," said Jack E. Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement USA. "Year after year, we keep seeing the same challenges, despite people doing their very best to turn things around."
Most teens surveyed, 95%, believe education plays an important role in equality and 38% said they have had some sort of financial literacy class in school.
"Financial literacy is a 21st century survival skill; every student should be learning that," said 14-year-old Kavya Venkatesan, who will participate in the Junior Achievement and CNBC + Acorns Invest in You townhall, "Leveling the Playing Field Through Education," on Thursday.
Venkatesan attends Old Bridge High School in New Jersey, a state that requires the coursework for graduation. She has already taken an online class last summer with the Future Business Leaders of America. She has also learned about investing and is buying stocks with her parents.
"I have been able to develop my critical thinking skills and learned to make strategic decisions," Venkatesan said. "These are all important skills in financial literacy and can help me later in my life."
Only 21 states mandate personal finance coursework, with just a handful — Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia — requiring a standalone course for high school graduation in 2021.
North Carolina passed legislation for the requirement beginning with the graduating class of 2024 and Mississippi's Class of 2022 will be required to take a one-year College & Career Readiness Course, which includes a semester of personal finance, according to Next Gen Personal Finance's newly released 2021 State of Financial Education Report.
In addition, 25 states plus the District of Columbia have introduced legislation this year to increase access in financial education. Measures range from developing curriculum standards and forming task forces to requiring a course prior to graduation, according to Next Gen co-founder and CEO Tim Ranzetta.
There is also a trend in schools influencing their neighbors. Recent research found that having just one personal finance standalone course requirement within a 10 mile radius was associated with a 7 percentage point increase that a neighboring school had that same policy the next year.
"Administrators, teachers, and parents within a greater community talk to one another, and programs that are working in a local school can easily generate demand for a similar class in one's own school," said Carly Urban, one of the authors of the research paper and an associate professor of economics at Montana State University.
"That means subsidizing one school in a financial literacy desert could spread the course to other local schools."
Florida teen Jorge Sanchez attends school in one of the districts in the state that requires the classwork, although the state itself does not.
A sophomore at Jefferson High School in Tampa, the 16-year-old will take the class his senior year. Yet he has already taken programs through Junior Achievement to gain some of that knowledge.
"My family has always been big on talking about money and spending your money wisely," said Sanchez, the son of Colombian and Mexican immigrants.
"Once I went to the JA programs, I really got a better understanding of what it means to earn money, what it means to spend it and how to budget."
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That's something that many teens don't necessarily think about, Junior Achievement USA's Kosakowski said.
"Too often, students are deciding what school to go to based on where their parents went, where their friends are going, a great sports team, as opposed to what field of study they want to work in, what it will cost and how much they will make in their lifetime to pay back that cost of education," he said.
Four-year private colleges averaged $50,770 in tuition and fees, plus room and board in the 2020-21 school year, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid. Four year in-state public colleges averaged $22,180.
"As a consumer of education, we really need to look at it more as a return on investment," Kosakowski said.
REGISTER: Click here to join the Junior Achievement and CNBC + Acorns Invest in You townhall, "Leveling the Playing Field Through Education," on Thursday at 1p.m. ET.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.