By Meagan Murray
Emporia State University professor Rob Catlett (center, seen here on a field trip to a factory in Emporia, Kansas) used the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances  curriculum to put academic learning into a real-world focus.
Megan Biehler knows that balancing a budget is difficult. She remembers the frustration in her dad's voice last year, as he struggled to maintain the budget for their farm in Herington, Kansas. "We really need to start pinching pennies," he told the family, as the farm was hit by skyrocketing fertilizer and fuel prices.
Tim Biehler had to scale back significantly on both the amount of fertilizer he used and the amount of seed planted per acre – reductions he says resulted in a $40 cut per acre. They then switched to a no-till method to save on fuel consumption. Seeing now that the cutbacks helped keep their farm in business, Megan Biehler asks: "If farmers, the people who work seven days a week, 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, can find ways to cut corners, why can't our government? "
That fall, Biehler returned to Emporia State University  in Emporia, Kansas, as a junior majoring in elementary education, and got her chance to sound off on the federal budget  deficit - as one of 160 students taking Basic Economics 101.
"We must be able to take responsibility not only for our future, but also for our present," says Emporia State University student Mallory Livingston in her award-winning essay  about the budget deficit and national debt. "Right now is the time when our generation has the power to affect, demand, and implement change. So what are we waiting for?"
The six classes learning the ins and outs of the economy were taught by Rob Catlett , who in Fall 2008 began using Public Agenda 's Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances  curriculum  on the federal budget deficit and the national debt, a nonpartisan collection of learning materials including interactive games and discussion guides made available free of charge by a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation .
Catlett, a veteran professor who relies on real world and real time examples to teach economic theory, used the curriculum, available on FacingUp.org , in combination with standard textbook assignments and two other nonpartisan sources: the PublicAgenda.org  and Concord Coalition  web sites.
"We really try to get them to use analytical and critical thinking skills," says Catlett, who focused on the long-term challenges of the deficit and debt and their interaction with the current economic crisis. "I wanted them to go look at the website and apply what we were doing in class to get a basic foundation of how macroeconomics work... It was a case of serendipity in a way; they paid attention because they knew it was important and history was being made."
Biology major Beth Meigs  also says that like Biehler, she came into the class already concerned about the growing national debt. "My dad and I like to watch the news... so I knew we were in trouble and needed to find a way out," she says, "or my generation would have to pay for this mess."
Some students, however, acknowledge that they hadn't given much thought to how a $10.6 trillion debt could affect them. Miranda Campbell  said that previous to taking the course, she never realized how much a budget that isn't balanced could impact her community.
"I never really cared about the economy and politics and how it affects me," says Campbell, who is majoring in health promotion, a program training professionals to increase public awareness of the impact of health and lifestyle choices. "I lived in a small country town in Texas all my life and now, for the past three years, I have lived in Emporia, Kansas… As far as I could tell, the only way [it] affected me was gas prices and the price of goods. I have now come to a different conclusion."
Campbell wasn't alone in her initial lack of interest. "Before I took Basic Economics, I didn't think much about the economy. It's embarrassing to say this now because I like to stay educated about what goes on around me," recalls Mallory Livingston , an English/secondary education major. "Dr. Catlett did a good job tying in the informational aspect of economics with the effect it has on the world and the country; without him making the effort to make that connection, we might not have seen that on our own."
After several weeks, Livingston began to learn how critical the federal budget was to maintaining a stable economy . "Dr. Catlett asked us to think and discuss how we felt about the national debt," she says. "He asked us to look at the historical changes made in America's attitude toward debt and which changes could be made to curb that."
Classmate Amber Dawn Vanderhofe  recently declared a double major in economics and sociology. Like Biehler, she has seen the effects of the recession reach her hometown of Mound Valley, Kansas - a town of just 400 people. Just recently, she watched as a close friend, a single mother, lost her job at a local business right before the holiday season. Vanderhofe credits Dr. Catlett's use of tools such as FacingUp.org  for captivating her interest and improving her understanding of the federal budget.
"[It] allowed me to obtain greater insight into the economy, rather than memorizing definitions," she says. "The devastating effects of our current crisis are fully apparent… Through FacingUp.org  and my classroom learning, I truly realized what was occurring and I am now able to associate economic descriptions with the issues."
Facing the Problem, and Fixing It
Halfway through the semester, Catlett came across a unique opportunity for his class: the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances nationwide contest , which challenges college students to comment – in written and multimedia essays - on the federal deficit and national debt and propose solutions to the problem.
Livingston and her classmates jumped at the chance to share their perspectives. "Too many times people don't ask us how [the economy] affects us," says Livingston, who wound up as the grand prize winner  of the competition, earning $750 in prize money. "We're going to be the ones leading the country. I really wanted to challenge my peers in getting involved in this process."
Like many other students in the class, Vanderhofe looked at government's financial problems from the vantage point of the current recession, calling on the government to address the national debt as soon as possible and pointing out that the problem gets worse to the tune of $3.8 billion a day. In the solution category for Vanderhofe is stimulating the economy, to create more jobs, in particular those involved in strengthening the infrastructure.
"These investments are essential and utilized on a daily basis," she says. "They have extremely expected income results, and they require capital costs to build, which results in long-term income. With additional infrastructure investments, long-term investments will be made that can significantly help the national debt."
Amber Dawn Vanderhofe of Mound Valley, Kansas, voted a winner in the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances essay contest, was among several students pointing to the Iraq war as a drain on U.S. finances , while calling on her peers to be active citizens and register to vote.
Vanderhofe's words won praise from her classmates and helped her win the peer prize vote for Best Written Essay.
Brandon Rich , who stressed in his own essay the importance of stronger public engagement on the problem of the federal budget, logged on to FacingUp.org to praise Vanderhofe for presenting a perspective which helps people to realize that individuals can make a difference.
Elementary education major Amy Niehues  believes that another way to demolish the debt is to raise taxes. Most Americans, writes Niehues in her essay "Demolishing the Debt,"  cringe at the thought of having to shell out a portion of their income to the government and potentially lower their standard of living.
"Most of the government budget comes from personal and payroll taxes, so this is the easiest way to get more funds," Niehues continues, arguing that this is a necessary step. "Taxpayers need to be aware that they are going to have to pay more taxes in order to get more benefits from the government."
Evan Schlyer , a communications major, says that individuals need to become more responsible for their own credit. He cites his own personal experience with credit cards as a testament to how they have become "overused and abused." Upon acquiring a credit card several years ago, Schlyer says he overspent and accumulated more than $700 in debt that he couldn't pay off.
"I, unlike America right now, was able to work my tail off and after about two years, pay it off… America's debt though is already in the trillions. I was able to live under my parents for food and shelter while I earned enough to pay my bill," says Schlyer, pointing out that in the case of the deficit and national debt, both the parents and the children are pushing us further and further into debt.
Ashley Vaughn  proposed a 12-step program to help wean the United States off the habit of borrowing money, suggesting approaches including raising taxes, buying domestically rather than relying on imported goods, reframing government programs like Social Security , Medicare  and Medicaid, and increasing American's personal savings rates.
Kicking the habit was also a theme of Livingston's prize-winning essay, "Our Generation and the Impact of America's Growing National Debt,"  in which she also took up the question of the United States' place in the international community.
"The fact that other countries rely on us so much should be the driving force to stop deficit spending," she says. "America will always be a superpower in terms of economics and politics, but we need to be responsible in that role or else we're misleading other countries – it's time to stop arguing about what our responsibility entails and focus on how we can use that responsibility for the greater good."
With the semester completed, Livingston is leaving the class with a better understanding of economics – along with evident proof of her accomplishments. "As much as many of us struggle through general education courses, I'm really glad I was made to take [Basic Economics 101]," she says, "otherwise this is an opportunity that I never would have gotten – to see how all of this effects my world and the world around me."
Staying Educated and Getting Involved
While reactions to the budget and debt crisis and proposals to fix it ran the gamut, there was one collective opinion shared by the students of Basic Economics 101, namely, that education is the first and foremost initiative to improving the knowledge and credibility of tomorrow's economic leaders.
"If I learned anything from the class with Dr. Catlett, it's that he would always say 'My future is your future,'" says Livingston, "and we all have to work together to make sure that future is secure. The best way to do that is through information and understanding the world around us; the best way to be prepared is through education."
That's why Meigs focused her essay  on the need to make higher education affordable and available to all students. She states that the biggest obstacle facing her generation, and Americans in general, is a lack of education about how the financial system operates, especially the federal budget. "If we continue to help younger Americans get further in their education, we look forward to effective long-term solutions to some of these problems and we will also have more educated people in the future to create better government policies," she says.
Emporia State University , founded in 1863 to educate Kansas' teachers, today enjoys a diverse student body from 55 nations, a characteristic that led to some diverse viewpoints while studying the U.S. debt crisis.
Campbell, who previously admitted to not caring much about the economy, says that after completing the course, she knows that the economy affects everything – "current jobs, future jobs, cost of living, and life in general" – no matter where you live in the United States.
"I have finally realized that learning about the economy should be just as important as learning about the history of the United States," she says. "It all goes hand in hand. When there is a war there is money spent, when there is depression money is lost. All the major events that have happened in America have all had some effect on the national debt."
Rich , a social science major, urges the youth of his generation to show their concern for the national debt by contacting their elected representatives and congressional representatives.
It will, he says, take a massive, organized and cooperative effort if there is to be hope of scratching a few zeros off the famed national debt clock, as we learn to accept the sacrifices necessary to ensure a brighter future.
Livingston agrees, saying that there is a need for her generation to take responsibility for the increasing debt in the United States, starting with realization that each citizen plays a part by electing the officials who represent us in government. "We're making the decisions that affect our country; it's time for us to take responsibility – we have the power to make that happen. Government regulation, as a people, can work - when people start regulating the government."
Learning from One Another
Catlett says one of the best things about teaching a provocative subject like economics is seeing the dialogue among students as they share diverse reactions about what they are learning.
"There was a different dynamic in each class... They weren't all saying the same thing; they using different thought processes," he says. "It was really neat to see the transformation in their thought process. It becomes a heightened sense of awareness."
One case in particular that stood out was a student's frustration with not only the government but also with what she believed to be her limited role in the government. "I should probably be paying a lot more mind to exactly what is going on in our country today; I never registered to vote, or even bothered to watch any of the debates for the presidency," says Elizabeth Shenk , a senior art major.
"I think maybe I have a hard time being interested in it all because of the fact that it just plain doesn't matter how interested I am," she continues. "There's nothing I can come up with on how to pull our country out of this huge hole of debt that we've apparently tripped into. All I can do is criticize and grumble."
This prompted a constructive response from Vanderhofe: "I think the fact that most people feel comfortable with our government is what has allowed our problems to escalate," she says. "I understand your reluctance to vote. Your voting won't change Kansas into a Democratic state, but it's still one of the surest ways to express yourself… I've come across numerous resolutions to help the national debt…What do you think of these ideas?"
As another semester ends, Catlett marvels at the progress his students have made over the course of several months. He is impressed with the contributions of his students and is looking forward to using the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances  curriculum in future classes.
"If education is really worth something, we saw evidence of that in this contest," he says. "[The students] understand we live in a dynamic world - it's ever-changing. Now they can apply the models we've learned and won't be in such a disadvantageous situation… as we embark on this new adventure of where our economy is headed."
For more on students learning about the federal budget deficit and the national debt, check out our reports on the University of Pennsylvania  and George Mason University  in Virginia.