Free Tuition a Debt Solution for Higher Education? Let's Take Action From the Inside Out

Free tuition seems to be quite a hot topic in higher education as of late, and with good reason. With increasing tuition costs and fewer options for borrowing at fiscally responsible interest rates, states are feeling the burden of unpaid loans like never before. With student debt in the U.S. surpassing consumer credit debt for the first time in U.S. history, this $1.1 trillion dilemma has many states taking action to find a solution to the question: How can students obtain higher education, build a career and pay back their loans without it becoming a life-sentence?

Last summer, Oregon took a step toward offering free college tuition when Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill ordering a state commission to examine whether free tuition is feasible. The state legislature subsequently passed a bill that could dramatically change the funding of public education in Oregon. The proposed "Pay it Forward, Pay it Back" plan would eliminate tuition completely -- instead of paying upfront, students would sign up to pay the state a proportion of their income after they finish college. It will be a few years before anything goes into action, as the bill instructs the state's Higher Education Coordinating Committee to set up a pilot program for consideration by the state's 2015 legislature.

In addition, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law on May 13 a promise of free community college tuition to every high school graduate in the state. The Tennessee Promise plan, which goes into effect next year, will use $34 million from lottery funds to cover tuition for a two-year degree. Currently one-third of residents in Tennessee have a college degree. Gov. Haslam's plan is to increase this number to 55 percent through this program.

This spring, Michigan legislators also hatched a creative plan to finance college tuition. The state's proposed bill would create a pilot program that offers a free education for students in exchange for a fixed percentage of their income -- 2 percent for community college students and 4 percent for public university students - that would be placed into an earmarked fund for five years for every year they attended school under the program. According to the Detroit Free Press, this bill is currently working its way through the Michigan legislature and a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.

Illinois legislators are also getting in on the debate in the form of HB 5323, which would authorize the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to study the feasibility of a program allowing students to attend college and repay their interest-free loan after graduation as a small, fixed percentage of their future disposable income. Click here to read an article from the Northwest Herald on this proposal. While the Pay It Forward, Pay It Back Act is an interesting idea, there are upfront costs to offering a multitude of students free education, and repayment likely will take years. A similar proposal in the state of Washington caps the repayment period at 25 years.

Given these factors, how then would a tuition-free college program sustain itself? Tennessee wants to use lottery money to create his state's free community college program for high school graduates. Oregon leaders hope their feasibility study determines how much money the program will cost and whether to limit free tuition to recent high school graduates. In addition, Illinois is in a financial crisis now, unable to make its obligations to the pension fund of public education. The annual Illinois Financial Report puts the state's current deficit at $44.79 billion.

And student loans are spiraling out of control. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of student borrowers taking the maximum in loans each year -- $12,500 for undergraduates -- has increased 60 percent in 2008 to 68 percent for the 2011-2012 academic year.

As a community college president for nearly 34 years, my advice to higher education and legislative officials is to stop, step back and, beyond merely shifting the cost of an college education, look at fixing this problem from the inside out.

Aside from free tuition or Pay It Forward programs, let's consider innovations at the community college level that puts four-year diplomas in the hands of our students at a minimal cost. Three years ago, my institution, College of DuPage, the largest community college in Illinois, started a 3+1 initiative that has resulted in offering baccalaureate programs on campus with partner universities at significantly reduced tuition rates. We now offer 12 degrees at COD through five partner universities. Total sticker price? All in, less than $36,000 for the same baccalaureate degree offered at roughly four times that amount at other state colleges in Illinois.

College of DuPage is also pursuing another way higher education can reduce student debt significantly: cut the cost of earning baccalaureate degrees by allowing community colleges to offer them.

According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, approximately 45 percent of all undergraduate students -- or 8.3 million students -- are enrolled in community colleges. College of DuPage and other community colleges provide high-quality, affordable academic programming in line with current job demand and preparing our students for new and emerging fields. We keep up with market trends and look for new ways to educate students and stimulate the economy without the high cost of four-year institutions.

I think our state leaders would be wise to consider allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees to further assist current and future students. Twenty-two states already do this. Currently, College of DuPage is leading the charge in the state of Illinois to move toward community colleges offering Bachelor of Applied Technology (BAT) and/or Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) degrees.

Given that community colleges can offer baccalaureate degrees at a fraction of the cost of four-year institutions, it seems to me that reducing a student's cost in the first place is the best step toward eliminating a lifetime of loan repayments. Let's truly pay it forward by fixing this problem properly - from the inside out.

Free tuition seems to be quite a hot topic in higher education as of late, and with good reason. With increasing tuition costs and fewer options for borrowing at fiscally responsible interest rates, states are feeling the burden of unpaid loans like never before.