Poor financial planning on an individual level has led to massive amounts of student debt as well as poor postsecondary opportunities for students. From what I have researched and experienced personally, a significant amount of middle to lower class college students and parents took out student loans for colleges with tuitions upwards of $50,000 because it appeared to be the only way to ensure the student’s success. This narrative, promulgated by the academic market, thrives off of a lack of financial education and academic alternatives for lower to middle class families who may have spent their whole lives living pay check to pay check. Promoting pre-college financial planning as well as legitimizing community college education and vocational training could be crucial in solving not only disparate access to higher education but also lowering national debt and tuition rates.

My personal experience tells a story to which many American college graduates can relate: I was told I had to go to college in order to obtain secure employment, and that the college had to be competitive, and that the amount of tuition was negligible in comparison to how much money I would make later on in said secure employment. Federal loans to the tune of $120,000 were taken out in a few clicks of my computer mouse. Such an investment seemed compulsory to my parents as they had, and continue to, struggle in a service driven economy that becomes more and more exclusive to degree holders. This economic issue is well reported and it could be considered common knowledge that college graduates on average make $1 million more in their lifetimes than non-graduates. In this context, denying your child the best education possible seems irresponsible, if not cruel.

However, this oversimplified “good college = success” model has undoubtedly failed to deliver. Now more than ever, at over $1 trillion in debt, our country needs to revisit the prerequisites one needs in order to obtain both education and rewarding employment. Financial planning classes should be mandatory for high school students. If I had calculated the amount of debt I would be paying back every month after I graduated college, I probably would have attended the lower-ranking school that offered me a half scholarship over the preposterously expensive urban-based college I will be indebted to for the next fifteen years.

Beyond financial planning, our country needs to look out how our inflating debt and tuition costs have aided in cheapening the worth of community college education and vocation training. Cities and states should be focusing on community colleges as not only pathways to better education but as an educational ends in themselves. Vocational classes should be brought back with vigor into our public schools, aided with funding. These alternative options are necessary in increasing access to education and postsecondary success particularly for lower and middle class students.

Knowledge is power. Students need to be equipped with academic skills but also with a sense of governance over their finances and professional options. If tuition prices keep rising, and if our economy continues to cater to college graduates, then the system will limit its opportunities for students who are not getting “the best of the best”. Students and parents should plan ahead for college and make responsible decisions that do not end in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. A grassroots movement back to affordable education and vocational training could help lower tuition spikes and student debt overall. This movement could be aided by policies that fund financial planning in schools, reward lower-ranked schools inexpensive schools that maintain high post-graduation rates, and bring excellent faculty and resources into community colleges.