Student management

Ohio colleges design new programs to increase affordability and reduce student debt

By Amy MoronaOpen Campus

March 28, 2022

To put it mildly: going to college, for some people, can be expensive.

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Costs rose 169% between 1980 and 2019, and student loan debt was estimated at $1.73 trillion in the United States earlier this year.

Add to that the financial hardship the pandemic may have amplified or triggered, especially for women and people of color. Completion rates for the federal form commonly known as FAFSA, which gives those who fill it out a chance to get federal or state aid to pay for their education, have plummeted during the pandemic.

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Higher education institutions have also been affected. Colleges across the country saw a 4.5% drop in total full-time undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020 and a further 3.5% drop a year later.

In recent months, several colleges in Ohio have introduced or announced new initiatives to make earning a degree more affordable and reduce student debt.

The most recent is The Ohio State University’s “Scarlet and Gray Advantage” program. OSU President Kristina Johnson detailed the initiative during her inaugural speech in mid-November. Over the next decade, the state’s flagship university plans to offer a debt-free degree through a combination of grants, scholarships and work opportunities. The goal is for students to avoid taking out loans.

“It’s not free college, or free tuition, or debt forgiveness,” Johnson said in an interview with Crain’s Cleveland Business. “It’s really a way of bringing together multiple opportunities so that our students have the greatest choice when they graduate for what they do next.”

OSU plans to raise $800 million, including $500 million, for scholarships over the next 10 years. Donors contributing to this endowment had a question for Johnson.

“Almost every donor has asked us, ‘Do children and families have a role to play? “, Johnson said.

The answer? Yes. Students are expected to be active participants in contributing to their own work-based education. The university wants to expand its network of paid concerts available on and off campus.

Johnson said there is a two-pronged approach to this type of partnership. The first, she said, centers on the lesson of “you appreciate something you pay for,” something she learned while working during her own undergraduate years.

“The second is that these are not just ways for the student to contribute to their own college education; it’s a way for them to gain valuable experience for their career,” she said.

Participants will also need to meet additional requirements, including enrolling in additional studies. This will focus on topics such as financial literacy, although some have pushed back on the effectiveness of this type of training.

OSU is poised to pilot the Scarlet and Gray Advantage for 125 low- and middle-income freshmen in fall 2022 as it strives to scale the offering over time.

The program made local and national headlines when it was announced in November. Still, Kristina Dooley, certified instructional planner and founder of Estrela Consulting in Hudson, said the buzz around these types of announcements can sometimes fade quickly.

“I feel like families often learn these things after they’ve already visited the school,” she said. “It doesn’t make them consider the school at first, but it’s definitely something that could put this school at the top of their list.”

Affordability is the deciding factor for students and families, according to Jowan Smith, founder of Getting Our Babies to College 101.

“There’s no more ‘just pick the school you like,'” she said. “Everyone is watching how it impacts the household.”

At a workshop Smith held at a Cleveland-area high school last week, only one of the 18 students she spoke to was planning to enroll in college next fall.

“They look at trades more,” she said. “They are studying alternative methods. They want money immediately.”

Enrolling in a traditional four-year college isn’t an experience for everyone, and right now the lure of joining the workforce directly is strong. A local college president recently told Smith that it’s hard to compete with jobs like working in an Amazon warehouse at up to $17.50 an hour.

Median lifetime earnings are estimated to be about $900,000 higher for men with a bachelor’s degree and $630,000 for women, compared to high school graduates.

With that in mind, Smith tries to help young people see the big picture. She wants them to have a goal and often encourages the creation of a five-year plan that includes some type of post-secondary education.

For those wishing to pursue a four-year degree, she has noticed greater interest in the University of Akron this year. UA introduced the Zips Accessibility Fellowship in April. It covers college tuition and overhead costs for traditional Pell Grant-eligible freshmen who live in one of the six neighboring counties.

Kent State University launched its own “Flashes Go Further” scholarship program in June. Officials said the goal was to expand access and get more students to graduate.

Ohio students who have a calculated family contribution of $10,000 or less are eligible, although there are additional requirements. It is intended to help cover unmet financial needs.

The average annual price was about $5,000, according to Sean Broghammer, KSU’s acting vice president for enrollment management.

“Flashes Go Further” differs from the others because it also includes those who are still below this family contribution threshold but do not find themselves eligible for Pell Grants. Broghammer said lower-middle-class students have become more difficult to graduate as higher education costs have risen.

While the focus remains on improving access, he admitted there is mutual gain to be had.

“I think by creating these kinds of programs you’re going to raise awareness and maybe even get some extra attention, so you’re hoping that enrollment will follow to some degree,” he said.

Kent State doesn’t expect to see huge increases in enrollment, Broghammer said, but officials expect to see “some” growth for this demographic in this population.

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