A college education is one of the biggest financial investment most families will make. As we begin a new year, the reforms set in place in 2015 by Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Legislature will help make a college education more affordable.

Ohio is now positioned as a national leader in controlling and reducing the costs of higher education. In the latest state budget, Ohio increased funding for higher education by 8.5 percent to help students limit debt, and also instituted a two-year freeze on tuition and general fees for state-supported schools.

Members of the Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency identified ways our public colleges and universities can further reduce costs and pass those savings on to students and their families, looking at such strategies as making textbooks more affordable and identifying opportunities for operational efficiencies. We have challenged Ohio's colleges and universities to look at how to best implement many of these recommendations.

To help low-income community college and regional campus students accelerate their coursework, the recent state budget also gave students access to funds from the Ohio College Opportunity Grant to fill a gap in the federal Pell Grant, which does not fund year-round studies. Through this effort, Ohio's college campuses can be put to greater use during the summer months.

In addition, Ohio has invested an additional $13 million to enhance several scholarships for underserved populations, including the War Orphans and Ohio National Guard scholarships.

Earning college credit while still enrolled in high schools is another way to lower costs by reducing the time it takes to earn a college degree. The College Credit Plus program, which debuted statewide at the start of the 2015-16 school year to high enrollment numbers, helps students earn college credit while still in high school. The state budget allocates $10 million to credential more teachers for college-level instruction and provide competitive grants to universities for teachers to become credentialed for College Credit Plus courses.

With more high schools able to offer college credit, students can get a jump start on college at no cost and reduce their overall college education expenses. As a result of these opportunities, a senior from Warren High School near Marietta will graduate in the spring with four associate degrees from Washington State Community College, and a 17-year-old from West Chester Township will become the youngest student to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati.

Another way to address the time it takes to earn a degree is by helping more students get the college and career advice they need to keep them on the right path during their time at a college or university. Ohio developed first-ever standards for school counselors, which will include career counseling specific to the workforce opportunities here in Ohio. Ohio's colleges and universities were also charged with putting a career counseling program in place on their campus by the end of 2015.

Ultimately, higher education must prepare students for careers. While time in the classroom is invaluable, the best method is to pair in-class education with real-world experience in the workforce. This past year, the state began working with its public and private colleges and universities and the business community to embed employment experiences into the curriculum of degree programs. These work experiences include co-op and internship opportunities for in-demand jobs.

In 2015, we took important steps to reduce college costs for Ohio students and their families thanks to strong partnerships with Ohio colleges and universities and members of the Ohio General Assembly from both sides of the aisle. I expect to continue these collaborations in 2016, building upon the positive momentum and putting all of our students on a path to success.