Ohio State University plans to go debt-free for all undergrads

Ohio State University has announced its intention to eliminate loans from all undergraduates’ financial aid packages across the next 10 years. The land-grant university has an undergraduate enrollment of more than 40,000, and its new ”Scarlet & Gray Advantage” program is thought to be the largest ambition of its kind at a public university.

Currently, almost half of all Ohio State undergraduates take out loans; the average student borrows more than $27,000. Ohio State’s new president Kristina M. Johnson said she hopes eliminating that debt will reduce the need for students to make career and life decisions based on the amount they owe.

“We want people to follow their passions, what they’re really interested in, because we know when they do that, they’re going to be most successful, satisfied, happy, and fulfilled,” she told NPR.

Scaling up debt-free degrees

Through the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, Ohio State plans to replace student loans with a combination of scholarships, research opportunities, and paid internships, covering not only tuition and fees but the full cost of attendance, including books and travel. Ohio State will extend the promise to every undergraduate, setting itself apart from other large public universities, which to date have limited similar no-debt initiatives to low-income students.

Related: HBCUs clear students’ unpaid balances to lighten debt burden >

Johnson emphasized that the program isn’t offering “free” college. Families still will pay an expected family contribution, as calculated via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and students will apply internship earnings to cover educational costs.

Still, “the challenges of scaling up such an effort are many,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes, noting that Ohio State will need to raise at least $800 million to hit its 10-year target. The university also will need to pull together thousands of high-quality work experiences that position students for workforce success or further education. Using philanthropy and research grants, Ohio State hopes to increase the number of research assistant positions on campus each year from 2,000 to 4,000.

A pilot effort to start

Ohio State will launch its effort next fall with a pilot program for 125 undergraduate students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Participants will attend financial literacy courses and will come to campus before the fall semester to ease their transition.

Observers say that, if well-executed, the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program’s broad applicability and clear message could help attract low- and middle-income students, ultimately increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus.

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