Many debt-free college degrees start at community college


Over the past 10 years, student loan debt has more than tripled from $360 billion in 2005 to more than $1.2 trillion today, leading many people to question whether or not rising student debt levels have finally become unsustainable.

Supporting these claims are studies that show student loan delinquencies have surged from 6 percent a decade ago to more than 11 percent at the end of last year, far higher than the delinquency rate for any other type of debt.

Those worrisome trends have everyone from student activists to presidential candidates pushing proposals to stem the rising tide of student debt—some aimed at making higher education more affordable and others at helping borrowers deal with, or even dismiss, high loan balances.

While it’s too soon to know which approach may ultimately be successful, millions of future students and their families would benefit from a debt-free college experience.

In February, President Barack Obama proposed a scaled-back version of what would be a radical idea for Americans: free tuition for community college students.

Obama’s plan would offer free tuition to students who attend classes at least half time and maintain a grade point average of 2.5 or better. In announcing a resolution that backed the concept, Edna Baehre-Kolovani, president of Tidewater Community College, thanked him for “jump starting” the conversation about debt-free college. The measure has received support from community college leaders across the United States.

Read “Three issues raised by President Obama’s free community college proposal”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is another proponent of debt-free college: “While not every college needs to graduate every student debt free, every kid needs a debt-free option—a strong public university where it’s possible to get a great education without taking on loads of debt.”

Student loan debt is sure to be a major issue in the 2016 presidential elections. In a June 13 campaign speech, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wanted to “make college affordable and available to all […] and lift the crushing burden of student debt.” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky proposed letting “college students deduct the cost of their education over their working career.”

The U.S. is, by far, the most expensive place in the world to go to college. The cost of college has surged more than 500 percent since 1985, according to Bloomberg. Free tuition is a concept embraced in most of Europe, including my native Germany, which often includes such perks as free transportation.

Expanding aid and access

The expansion of existing federal and state programs and funding can also help reduce the risks and ease the burdens of student debt. “Two things need to happen … increase state investment in higher education and increase access to need-based aid,” said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit policy and research organization.
Asher recommends expanding federal Pell Grants, which more than 8 million low-income Americans depend on to attend college. In the 1980s, the maximum Pell Grant covered more than half the cost of attending a four-year public college. Now the $5,775 maximum Pell Grant for the 2015-16 academic year is expected to cover less than one-third of the cost of college—the lowest amount in more than 40 years, Asher said.

More states are seeking to expand affordable higher education options by letting community colleges offer four-year degrees from the traditional two-year associate degrees.

The average cost of tuition and fees at a community college was $3,347 in the 2014-2015 academic year, according to the College Board. That’s 60 percent less than the average in-state tuition and fees at public four-year universities and 90 percent less than at private colleges.

At Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Hampton Roads, Virginia, fifty-four percent of students receive some form of financial aid, and even though the college administered more than $110 million in grants and loans last year, Baehre-Kolovani admits that many students still “struggle with the financial realities of college” – which includes not only tuition but textbooks, transportation and child care.

The good news is that three out of five TCC students graduate without a single penny of debt, and those who do have debt are typically repaying it, leading to a default rate for TCC students that is well below the federal average.

TCC is addressing cost issues by expanding textbook-free offerings – saving students thousands of dollars – and providing licensed child care in partnership with the YWCA South Hampton Roads. “But America’s College Promise would undoubtedly shift the equation in students’ favor,” Baehre-Kolovani adds.

Interested in pursuing attainable and affordable education through a community college? Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach residents should contact Tidewater Community College via email at, by phone at 757-822-1122 or online at!


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