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For the last six years, Florida and the nation have faced the alarming reality that its students continue to drown in debt.

Student loan debt has tripled since 2009 to more than $1.5 trillion, fast approaching the 2008-09 levels of default that led to a taxpayer-funded bailout.

In many states, students are graduating with almost $40,000 in student loan debt.

In Florida, average student loan debt is nearly $25,000 per student. Within five years of beginning repayment, nearly 30 percent of borrowers default on their student loans. By 2023, more than 40 percent will default on their student loans. Young people ages 18-24 on average owe one-third of their incomes toward debt repayment.

But these are only symptoms of a larger problem: financial illiteracy.

As we saw in 2009 and now with historic student loan defaults, financial illiteracy is no longer confined to the individual who makes a bad financial decision. It now is affecting many more people — sometimes all taxpayers — and its consequences last a lifetime.

So, what’s the answer?

A separate personal finance course in high school, research shows.

Just as we broke the cycle of reading illiteracy for students before they graduated, sound research concludes we must do no less when it comes to financial illiteracy. That is why more than 20 states now require a separate financial literacy course to be offered.

Groups such as the Florida Council on Economic Education, along with a broad range of stakeholders, worked with state Sen. Dorothy Hukill to move Florida toward a required personal finance course in 2013 in three phases: First, establish the cost of the course; second, create the content for the course; then, armed with the data, adopt the course itself.

Phases one and two were completed in 2015. For the next three years, our Legislature worked to complete the final phase of adopting the course but came up short.

We’re glad our legislators didn’t give up. This year, they finally approved legislation that will require all school districts to offer a personal finance course in high school.

Although it does not require students to take the course, this historic bill does require all districts to offer the course and marks the first time Florida ever has required a personal finance course to be offered as an elective.

Thanks to Sen. Travis Hutson, Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who courageously continued the late Sen. Hukill’s noble legacy, we are closer than we ever have been to our goal.

We hope the Legislature and governor will approve this needed legislation.

William Thomas is chairman of the Florida Council on Economic Education board.

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