By Brent M. Donaldson
Editor, NKU Magazine
Right now, you are making a value judgement tied to basic economic principles. If you read on, the risks of your investment include wasted time, potential loss of benefits gained through a different activity, and the risk of placing value in potentially misleading information.
But because so many of us fail to view everyday decisions through the lens of economics, our choices often work against our best interests and our personal finances are a mess. To wit: Only 46 percent of Americans have saved more than $10,000 for retirement. Despite the lessons we should have learned from the Great Recession, we added $89.2 billion in new credit-card debt in 2016—the most since 2007. And nearly two thirds of us can't calculate interest payments correctly.
When the National Financial Educators Council recently asked young adults aged 18–24 “What high school-level course would benefit your life the most?”, the majority (54.1 percent) responded “money management.” Yet we don’t do it.
Northern Kentucky University economics professor Dr. Abdullah Al-Bahrani is a man whose mission is to make financial literacy and economics a core element of education across every age and economic stratum. He plies his trade through the cultural currency of today’s students—pop culture, social media, music, and film—not in an effort to be hip, but because economics is about getting the most satisfaction out of life with the least amount of cost.
If you can find a way to teach that to today’s youth, you can save the country and the planet from suffering the next global depression, one student at a time.
Dr. Al-Bahrani arrived at NKU in 2013, three years after he cut his teeth as an economics professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. It was at Bloomsburg that Al-Bahrani was tasked with a distinct and influential challenge: to teach a class called “Economics for Non-Economists,” and to teach it using no math or graphs.
“Which, for an economist—we’ve become so math-oriented that we don’t know how to step away from it anymore,” Al-Bahrani says. “But I signed up just because I like challenges, but I had no idea what I was going to do.”
He decided to break down basic economic concepts by demonstrating their ties to nationality, our everyday decisions, and core economic philosophy. He showed his students ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries—particularly an episode called “Once Brothers.” The film centers on former Yugoslavia national basketball teammates Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović, best friends torn apart by geopolitical, ethnic, and ideological divides within their country during the Yugoslav War. When one friend dies unexpectedly, the other is overwhelmed with regret and heartbreak. That emotion became real for Al-Bahrani’s students, who suddenly realized how a government’s structure can impact personal relationships and friendships.
“And that’s economics,” Al-Bahrani says. “It allows me to put history in motion with economic education. That’s something that my students appreciate a lot—the power of storytelling—because economics is typically taught in a very dry way of supply versus demand. But the why or the how is never explained. I want students to feel what a recession feels like. I want them to feel how excited everybody was during the housing boom and how people thought it was never going to end.”
But just as importantly, Al-Bahrani discovered, his students slowly began to distill their everyday decisions through an economic filter—a goal that fueled the groundbreaking programs he’d soon bring to NKU.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Bahrani was born in 1981 in Muscat, Oman, where he lived only briefly as a child during two separate parts of his youth. Memories of his late childhood are tied largely to his mother, Sana Al-Balushi, as she pursued her Ph.D. in education and curriculum design from the University of Louisville. His father, Abbas Al-Bahrani, an economist for the Sultan of Oman, had to stay back. Young Abdullah often went with his mom as she attended night classes on UofL’s campus and studied late into the morning hours before heading home.
“That's why a Ph.D. felt like it was possible for me,” Al-Bahrani says, “because I saw how she went through it. She went through the hard work, but she did it with two teenagers while my dad had to stay back in Oman. She was in a new city by herself and she got through it. But seeing that struggle and seeing the reward of the education, it really taught me what a Ph.D. is about. I view a Ph.D. as learning how to learn for the rest of your life.”
Out of the 13 papers Al-Bahrani has authored or co-authored during his relatively short tenure at NKU, 11 of them center on innovative ways to teach economics. “A lot of things that I do in the classroom force the students to see the economics,” Al-Bahrani says. “With assignments like “Econ-Selfies” or “Econ-Beats,” students are actively participating—they have to do something to actually learn.”
For Al-Bahrani’s Econ-Selfie assignments, students are instructed to take a picture of something in their everyday lives related to a class lesson, then write 140 words about how the photo connects with the chosen economics principle. “It teaches them two things,” Al-Bahrani says. “It teaches them to look around, right? Try to see economics in their personal life. And it teaches them to explain it—to explain the economics. At first, students don’t like that assignment. ‘You’re jumping on the bandwagon of a fad, right? You’re trying to be cool using the term “selfie.”’ But after they submit that first assignment, usually the response is ‘I can’t stop seeing economics now.’”
To create Econ-Beats, Al-Bahrani partnered with colleagues in NKU’s Electronic Media and Broadcasting—a program housed across campus in the College of Informatics. Students are tasked with choosing a popular song, rewriting the lyrics using an economic theme and lexicon, recording the audio, and producing a music video as the final product. At the end of each semester, Al-Bahrani and his colleagues host an open screening where people from across the city get to vote for their favorite. More than $1,000 in prizes are awarded each semester.
“Dr. Al-Bahrani communicates with students through media and with the language they know and understand,” says Dr. Rebecca Porterfield, Dean of NKU’s Haile/US Bank College of Business. “When students are tasked with putting economics to music and video, all the technology inputs they are familiar with come together in an innovative and creative way—a way that allows for application that leads to real knowledge.”
There are two movements afoot in the United States that are equally related to our collective financial illiteracy. The first—a major focus of Al-Bahrani and NKU’s Center for Economic Education, which he leads—is to begin teaching economics and financial decision making as early as possible. As early as kindergarten, he says.
The second movement seeks to remedy the consequences of not doing the first. Credit card and student loan debt. Underwater mortgages. Our inability to distinguish between a want and a need, or the understanding of how to manage our finances and time. The movement has been loosely described as “adulting,” and the most well-known example may be the Adulting School in Portland, Maine. The school educates adults on matters of health and wellness, home improvement, and economics and financial basics. “You're smart and capable,” the school’s website says, “your education just didn't provide you with all the skills you need.”
Rachel Weinstein, a psychotherapist and co-founder of The Adulting School, says that financial distress leaks into every other part of our lives. “Not learning these (financial) skills early on creates a sense of chaos and anxiety that detracts from a person’s ability to be purposeful in their life, and to be productive and successful.”
Al-Bahrani sees it all of the time. “I have students who come to me and say, ‘I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life,’ Well, I don’t either,” he says. “I’m always trying to figure out my next step. Our students come in believing that the job that they get or the decision that they make today is going to be it for the rest of their life. That might’ve been the case when our parents or grandparents worked, but in today’s world and in today’s economy, really what you need to be developing is your brand. What makes you, you? Close your eyes. Ten years down the road, what do you see yourself doing? What do you see? Let’s start with the basic wants that you have. And that’s all economics is. What are the basic needs and wants that I have? You can build the rest around it.”
“I am fortunate to be the dean of a faculty that is highly talented,” Dr. Porterfield says. “When you witness the abilities and talent of an individual like Dr. Al-Bahrani, and know his knowledge of his field is strong, you just move out of the way and cheer him on.”
This article will appear in the Spring-Summer 2017 issue of NKU Magazine.
The Center for Economic Education at Northern Kentucky University’s mission is to increase economic and personal finance literacy in the region. The Center focuses on educating the educators and engaging the community through relevant educational experiences.
Economic education and financial literacy are vital to the success of our region, yet studies show that there is a lack of basic financial literacy understanding. NKU CEE focuses on creating better tools and resources for educators to use in the classroom and hosting continued education/Professional Development workshops.
In effort to increase financial awareness and economic knowledge, The Center strives to be a resource to the local community in Northern Kentucky and at NKU.
Resources for Educators
The Center for Economic Education promotes financial literacy and economic education through direct training and partnerships with teachers at all levels (K-16). By providing educators with the resources and curriculum support it encourages them to incorporate economics and financial literacy in their own classes.
Assistant Professor and Director