The collapse of President Biden’s higher education agenda has put a kibosh on the notion that Washington will be offering up trillions of new dollars to deliver “free” community college or pay off student loans. However, this doesn’t mean the issue of college affordability should be put on the back burner. After all, even though hysteria about student debt is exaggerated and community college is already functionally free for low-income students, college affordability is still a real issue for many.
Fortunately, whatever Washington does or doesn’t do, there are promising initiatives across the land that deserve a close look from college leaders and local policymakers—not to mention students and families.
Consider the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative, launched in 2007, which provides academic, personal, and financial support to a low-income community college students. ASAP students who are eligible to receive financial aid that ensures all tuition and fees are covered, and all ASAP students receive textbook-fee assistance and unlimited MetroCards. ASAP students are supported by a dedicated adviser, who provides academic and social support, a career counselor, tutoring services, and more. To date, ASAP has served more than 70,000 students, with a high-quality randomized controlled study finding significant benefits in cost-per-degree and degrees completed.
Or the consider opportunities offered by in-house Income Share Agreement programs (ISAs), which allow students to avoid taking on the private loans that can leave unlucky graduates struggling to pay their bills. With ISAs, students borrow whatever money they need beyond what campus financial aid or direct federal loans directly from the campus provide, in exchange for a promise to repay an agreed-upon percentage of post-graduation income for a set number of years. The result is that graduates with modest incomes don’t get swamped by unmanageable debts and colleges become real stakeholders in the success of their students. The best known of these programs is Purdue University’s Back a Boiler program, which allows students to receive aid based on expected post-graduation earnings. In Purdue’s program, borrowers who earn less than a minimum amount in a given year are off the hook for repayment that year, and there’s a maximum repayment amount for high-earning grads. Other institutions piloting ISAs include Lackawanna College, Clarkson University, the University of Utah, and Robert Morris University.
The nation is also dotted with “college promise” programs, which offer students who graduate in good standing from local high schools scholarships to cover up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at nearby colleges. College Promise reports that there are more than 300 promise programs today across 47 states. All are modeled, to some degree, on the Kalamazoo Promise program, launched in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2005. Students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools for all of K-12 have the opportunity to attend any in-state public college or university tuition-free If they meet the residency requirements, and students who attend district schools for only grades 9-12 are still eligible for a 65 percent scholarship.
Another intriguing program, recently profiled in The Hill, is Ohio State University’s new Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, which will combine scholarships, grants, work opportunities, and career coaching to help graduate students debt-free. Participants will have to commit to graduate in four years, engage in financial literacy programs, take advantage of work opportunities, and annually submit the federal student financial aid form (FAFSA). Launching this fall with 125 students, the program is to eventually be backed by an endowment of $500 million that OSU hopes to raise over the next decade.
There’s also a lot of promising activity as one moves further away from the world of “traditional” higher education. Competency-based education (CBE) programs base completion on skills and learning rather than course credit hours. Instead of moving on a semester-by-semester clock, students can progress through online courses when they demonstrate they’ve mastered the material, potentially speeding up the rate at which students complete credentials and yielding big savings. The pioneering Western Governors University has enjoyed much success with this model, graduating more than 250,000 students to date. It charges a flat rate per semester (generally about $3,000 to $4,000) that covers courses, learning materials, and assessments. Students are then free to complete as many courses as they want in a term.
When it comes to college affordability, there’s plenty more work to be done. One of the biggest challenges is that most traditional campus leaders seem unable (or unwilling) to hold the line on the cost of college—much less to bend the curve. Until this changes, college affordability will continue to be an issue for many. Fortunately, in the meantime, there are a growing number of promising initiatives, programs, and offerings that deserve the attention of students and, even more so, those state policymakers and college leaders across the land who are serious about making college affordable.