Ohio State president announces debt-free degree initiative

National News

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State University will offer undergraduate students the chance to graduate debt-free after four years under an initiative announced Friday by the school’s president that includes a combination of increased scholarships, grants and paid internships.

While other colleges offer a variety of scholarship programs to cover the cost of tuition, Ohio State believes it’s the first large university to offer the debt-free option for a student’s total costs.

The program — which begins with a small pilot next year and will cover tuition, room and board, fees, and books — has an estimated cost of about $100 million a year once it’s fully implemented at the end of 10 years. The university plans an $800 million fundraising campaign to help cover that amount.

For their part, participating students will commit to graduating within four years and take part in financial literacy instruction. Students or their families must fill out financial forms each year.

Just under half of Ohio State students graduate with debt, with an average of about $27,000 based on last year’s class, President Kristina Johnson said. Debt forces students to make different career and life choices, from abandoning a dream job to passing on graduate school to putting off a house purchase, she added.

“Ultimately, you’ll be more successful at what you’re passionate about, no matter what it pays,” Johnson said. “We just want them to have that equality of opportunity.”

The university will test its “Scarlet and Gray Advantage” program next fall with 125 low- and middle-income students with a goal of having it fully implemented in 10 years. It is not free tuition or free college, Johnson emphasized.

“It will equalize in my view the opportunity for any student to achieve the American dream,” she said.

Like many colleges, Ohio State already offers a tuition guarantee, meaning the tuition that freshmen pay will be the same each year they’re in college.

Ongoing fundraising and university contributions will cover about $30 million a year, with an endowment of around $500 million meant to cover the rest annually. The program also includes access to federal and state grants, and will be available to all undergraduates, including out-of-state and international students.

The university and top donors will double up to $50 million in private donations of at least $100,000 under a fundraising sweetener.

Internships in students’ fields will pay a living wage and would likely take place during the summer, Johnson said, possibly involving students living on-campus in student housing while they work.

Even with the current pandemic-driven employee shortage, Johnson believes, there will be enough jobs to go around. That detail is one of many she expects to be ironed out during next year’s pilot.

Last month, Smith College in Massachusetts announced it was eliminating loans from undergraduate financial aid packages next year and will replace them with grants from the college.

Washington University of St. Louis offers a “no-loan” program for families of first-year undergraduate students with annual incomes of $75,000 or less. Those students receive full financial aid packages without debt.

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