For the past seven years, Cincinnati area elementary students have been learning about personal finance and the ways a market functions.
“A lot of adults don’t understand how a market works, and these kids can tell you exactly how a market works,” says Julia Heath, director of the Economics Center
at the University of Cincinnati. “A lot of people think the government controls prices or the sellers control prices and nobody else controls it, but that’s not true—it’s a market that determines the prices—and these kids know that.”
The students know the principles of a market because each year, they get to participate in the Student Enterprise Program’s
Market Madness, where they’re given the opportunity to create and sell products.
This year’s theme was based on recyclable materials and re-use, so students created things like bookmarks, bracelets, stress balls, notebooks and magnets.
“Some have their products laid out and are walking around with sandwich boards marketing their products, while others are buyers," Heath says. "Then halfway through the round, an air horn sounds, and the sellers then have an opportunity to change their price. So they see a market at work, and they know that if they’re selling things like crazy off their table, then they need to raise their price. If nobody’s coming by, they need to lower their price or increase their marketing.”
Students also have the opportunity to take a college tour at UC, which Heath says is important because it allows them to envision themselves on a college campus and see if it’s the right fit for their own futures.
Market Madness is an annual event, but throughout the year, StEP’s director, Erin Harris, is busy with the program’s student-run businesses within their own classrooms.
“They can earn money through their business by good behavior, good attendance and good grades,” Heath says. “And then four times a year, we go to the school with a truck that’s got a bunch of stuff in it, and students then make a decision about whether they want to spend their money, save their money or donate their money.”
For Heath, it’s wonderful that students are learning economics principles, but the most gratifying aspect of StEP, she says, is students’ willingness to donate rather than save their money for a big purchase like an mp3 player or digital camera at the end of the year.
“Our most economically challenged schools are often our highest donators,” Heath says. “The class suggests the organization that will get their donations, and often it’s something they’ve had direct contact with—like they’ll choose the Alzheimer’s Association because one or two of the kids has had a grandparent that’s been stricken, or they choose Children’s Hospital because they had a classmate who spent a lot of time there, or they’ll choose the March of Dimes because their sibling has been affected. It’s really quite remarkable.”
By Brittany York
Brittany York is a professor of English composition at the University of Cincinnati and a teacher at the Regional Institute of Torah and Secular Studies.