There are some 37 million people in the U.S. currently holding student debt, with the national average among undergraduate student borrowers carrying a debt load of about $25,000. As a recent study by NERA Economic Consulting noted, “Student debt loads of $50,000, $100,000, and $200,000 are still the minority, but those high figures are becoming more common.”

What steps can you take to avoid this type of unmanageable debt, while still reaching your educational goals? While no one can single-handedly control the economy, being knowledgeable about trends in the college education market could be one of the best first steps in making some very important decisions about your future.

Choosing a college is a big decision. Now more than ever, attending your local community college may not only be the best choice, but one of the smartest ones you can make. This valuable local resource not only offers top-notch educational opportunities—it may allow you to complete your chosen field of study on a more sound financial footing.

As a prospective student, you want to find the right “fit”, somewhere that will challenge you while providing the guidance you need to reach your goals—whether that means earning your degree, fine-tuning your skill-set, or beginning a new career.

While costs at all two- and four-year colleges and universities are rising, tuition and fees at community colleges averaged only 36.2 percent of the average four-year public college tuition and fee bill in 2009, according to the College Board. For the 2010-11 school year, tuition and fees at community colleges averaged $2,713, compared to $7,605 for in-state costs at a four-year public university, and $27,293 at a private four-year institution.

And, in the bargain, the advantages to a community college education go beyond this. These benefits include small class sizes and a teaching staff committed to providing individualized attention, along with more night, weekend and online classes for the flexibility to fit your busy schedule.

Taking all these factors into account, the decision to attend Henry Ford Community College might not just be the best choice for your educational future, but a very smart one at that.

Kathryn Barnes