My Classroom Economy, a free financial education program launched by Vanguard in 2011, has made meaningful strides toward helping students of all grades discover what it means to be financially responsible. And its impact keeps expanding.

Unlike most such programs, MCE is experiential: It provides a real-world education by simulating an actual economy in the classroom. Students “rent” their desks, strive to earn bonuses and avoid fines, participate in auctions, and, in upper grades, make simulated investments in stocks and bonds. The program emphasizes learning to budget and save and demonstrates the value of delayed gratification.

“We’re equipping students with a broader set of financial capabilities that will allow them to be responsible savers and consumers for the rest of their lives,” said Vanguard marketing strategist Colton Fisher, one of MCE’s leaders.

A nationwide impact and beyond

MCE grew out of a dinner table conversation between Shannon Nutter-Wiersbitzky, a Vanguard principal, and her fourth grader, Ryan. Fascinated as her son talked about paying off his “mortgage,” Ms. Nutter-Wiersbitzky found that his class was learning concepts described in the 2007 book Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.

Encouraged by the possibilities, Ms. Nutter-Wiersbitzky got Vanguard involved. Backed by Vanguard volunteers—including a 12-person leadership team and about 40 ambassadors and specialists—the program has developed and spread as a financial education force.

After piloting at eight elementary schools across six states, MCE now reaches more than 600,000 K–12 students in all 50 states and Canada. Teachers and administrators can obtain free program materials through the MCE website.

“Our strategy for the future revolves around two goals: to increase the effectiveness of the program and increase adoption,” Mr. Fisher said.

Study confirms program’s worth

A recent federally funded study corroborated years of anecdotal reports by teachers, students, parents, and administrators about MCE’s success.

The Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted the study, supported by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Empowerment Innovation Fund. Over the 2015–2016 school year, about 2,000 third through fifth graders in Palm Beach County, Florida, participated.

The study concluded that MCE increased students’ financial knowledge and budgeting behavior, along with financial socialization (that is, student-parent discussions) and economic experience outside of school (such as having a bank account in their own name).

“We think it’s the first study with this level of rigor to examine the impact of a stimulated economy on elementary school students’ financial capability,” said Collin O’Rourke, a senior research specialist at the center. “The program appeals to teachers from a variety of backgrounds, and it’s a fun program for them to use. One reason we were interested in My Classroom Economy is that it includes pieces of financial knowledge, but also elements of skill-building and opportunities to develop confidence around finances.”

MCE’s seamless inclusion in the classroom is another big benefit. It can be tailored to a variety of subjects and enhances the lessons. “The program isn’t curriculum-based,” Mr. Fisher said. “It’s all learning by doing. Being able to see the bump in quiz scores of those who used the program was exciting.”

Note:

All investments are subject to risk including the possible loss of the money you invest.