Need help choosing a credit card or creating a budget? You might want to ask a student from Panther Valley High School.

Sixteen students recently scored in the top 20 percent of the National Financial Capabilities challenge, a nationwide program designed to increase financial knowledge and awareness in high school students. Two of these students, Jacob Gulla and William Digiglio, earned a perfect score.

The 2012 National Financial Capabilities test was administered to 80,024 students across the country, including 7,400 students in Pennsylvania. Just 35 students earned a perfect score in Pennsylvania. The challenge features 40 multiple choice questions focusing on financial topics such as earning, saving, investing, spending, and borrowing.

Panther Valley students were well prepared for the challenge, thanks in part to a required personal finance course. All students must complete one year of personal finance taught by Susan Solt, a business teacher at the high school. Since the program became a graduation requirement, she has noticed students' financial knowledge and test scores on the national challenge soar.

They're more confident in making financial decisions and creating budgets for college or their first car purchase, have an interest in the stock market, and even understand how to complete a tax return.

"Every kid needs to learn about personal finance. Classes like this are so important," said Solt.

She noted that unlike their parents' generation, many of today's students already have a credit score and are being closely monitored by credit bureaus. They might get credit card applications in the mail. And in just a few years, they'll be asked to make important decisions about student loans, paying for college, and renting or buying their first apartment or home.

"So many people live paycheck to paycheck. If we can teach these financial skills now, they'll be better prepared for adulthood. They'll know how not to get into financial trouble, or if they do find themselves in trouble, what to do about it."

Solt uses games and real-life scenarios to teach students about budgeting money, and noted that many are shocked to realize just how little money is left from a paycheck after taxes, student loans, and other bills. They also play a stock market game to learn about risk and reward.

These are important lessons to learn now, because the mistakes that they make in the classroom can stick with them for life. It's learning from these mistakes that count.

"If the kids are put into these situations now, they'll be better prepared for the real world," she said. "It's so important to get our kids prepared for their adult life, and to teach them these basic skills."

Panther Valley High School students scoring in the top 20 percent include Katelyn Evans, Deanna Focht, Tyler Heffelfinger, Josh Jacobs, Jordan Kulp, Lisa Lin, Ryan Mesh, Ryan Miller, Shannon Phillips, Gage Rohlfing, Justin Schuch, Richard Smith, Tyler Smith, and Samantha Snyder.