States Investigate Extreme Measures to Increase College Accessibility

The high price of education is a common theme these days. According to a recent U.S. News and World Report article, the average published tuition and fees at public four-year institutions rose 50.7 percent over the last decade when factoring in inflation. This figure increased 25 percent beyond the rate of inflation at private colleges and universities, and these climbing costs have led more and more students to seek out loans and other financial aid.

Community colleges offer a vast curriculum to meet the needs of all students at a price that appeals to a great portion of the population. Still, there are individuals who cannot afford education even at the community college level. While most will qualify for financial aid, some will not. This has motivated some colleges to take unprecedented steps to combat the cost of higher education and provide more opportunities to recent high school graduates who are not covered by other financial aid.

For example, representatives in Mississippi last month passed House Bill 424 by a vote of 115-4, which would pay community college tuition for recent Mississippi high school graduates who are not covered by other financial aid. The bill for free tuition at community colleges died in committee last week because of funding concerns, but advocates hope the bill can be revived and passed next year.

The free tuition idea is taking shape in other states as well. Similar proposals now are being floated in Tennessee, Oregon and Michigan, as well as other states in the U.S.

Considering the Student Loan Debt Clock has identified student loan debt growing at a rate of $2,853.88 per second in the United States, this type of forward thinking could help many students realize their dreams of higher education, while avoiding the pitfalls of expensive tuition and fees. It's been reported that student debt eclipsed the $1 trillion mark in 2012 (second only to credit card debt) and the average amount owed is about $24,000 per student.

Given these staggering numbers, many are calling on high school counselors and parents to reevaluate their thoughts on higher education and put a stronger emphasis on the value of community colleges. A recent opinion piece in Community College Daily does just that - challenging folks to refocus their efforts toward saving money on education.

The Obama administration has placed increased importance on the value of community colleges, insisting that these institutions help bridge the education gap. It's a call to action that we're embracing, but at a time when the average student owes approximately $24,000 in loans, I think we have the added responsibility of educating prospective students and their parents on what borrowing ultimately means for a student's financial future. To that end, College of DuPage hosts dozens of workshops each year, not only on financial aid, but on personal finance as well.

Unlike Mississippi, Tennessee, Michigan and Oregon, it is highly unlikely that Illinois leaders will offer a free tuition program for community college students anytime soon. We're seeing firsthand how poor financial decisions can have lasting debt ramifications as state education funding continues to dwindle.

While we may not be able to fix problems at the state level, we can help future generations make wise decisions, enabling them to achieve their educational goals while taking on minimal debt. Additionally, we can continue to monitor growing and emerging job fields, developing new programs in response to those trends. It's an all-encompassing approach that creates financially-savvy students, armed with marketable skills in growing industries and bank accounts that are not in the red for the first decade or more of their careers.