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Ohio State is raising millions to erase student loan debt for undergrads

An aerial view of The Oval, on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
An aerial view of The Oval, on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State University has launched an ambitious, 10-year plan to raise $800 million to eliminate all loans from financial aid packages given to undergraduates.

"It's not free college, it's not free tuition," says Kristina Johnson, the president of Ohio State, "but can we take one of the largest universities in the country and develop pathways for our students so that they can graduate debt-free?"

The school, which graduates more than 8,000 undergrads a year, says about half of those students graduate with debt. On average, graduates leave the university owing about $27,000, an amount that is in line with national averages for students completing a bachelor's degree.

"We have surveyed our students and what they tell us is that with $27,000 in average debt, they're making choices that they otherwise would not have made. They're not going to graduate school, serving their community, buying a house," says Johnson. "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."

Not the first, but perhaps the biggest

The debt-elimination plan would cost Ohio State about $110 million a year, provided to students through scholarships, work opportunities and paid internships. Philanthropy will be the largest component of the initiative, but Johnson said the university is also working with state lawmakers to increase student aid.

The move by Ohio State follows efforts in recent years by other universities, but most have been at smaller, more selective schools, like Amherst College in Massachusetts, and among the Ivy League. Ohio State is one of the largest universities in the country with more than 40,000 undergraduates.

While there are more than six dozen colleges that offer low-income families a path to a debt-free undergrad experience, far fewer have made it a policy for all students, regardless of income. In 2018, Johns Hopkins University in Marylandreceived a $1.8 billion gift from alum Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, to replace loans with scholarship grants at the college.

The initiative at Ohio State appears to be the largest attempt by a state university to do this. "The question is: Can it be done at scale?" says Johnson. "That is what I'm super excited about. We're going to do it at scale."

The flagship campus, based in Columbus, also funnels in students from Ohio's regional campuses across the state, broadening the promise to affect a much larger swath of students.

The plan would begin with a pilot program for 125 incoming freshmen next fall, expanding to include all undergraduates over the next decade.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny is an NPR Correspondent, covering higher education.