125 students join pilot for debt-free degree program
Strong first year of fundraising has raised more than $100 million for Scarlet & Gray Advantage
The Ohio State University has launched a pilot of its debt-free degree program with 125 incoming undergraduate students drawn from across the state.
The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program will empower students to graduate without college loans through enhanced access to scholarships, work opportunities and learning experiences focused on financial and career skills. Through their active participation in the program, students will be able to support their education and prepare for life after college.
“When it comes to both professional and personal success, a college degree is one of the best investments an individual can make, yet the possibility of taking on crushing levels of debt to get one makes it cost prohibitive for far too many," said President Kristina M. Johnson. "The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program tackles this problem at its root, making college affordable and preventing debt from accumulating in the first place. As a result, Ohio State students will have the financial freedom after graduation to freely pursue their passions."
Ohio State will expand the program more broadly over the coming decade, informed by lessons from the pilot.
The pilot, which is focused on students starting their first undergraduate year at Ohio State, is diverse. The 125 students represent each of Ohio State’s campuses, hail from more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties, and are pursuing majors in 57 disciplines representing at least 11 colleges. Seventy-five students — 60% of the cohort — are first-generation college students.
Lexi Crane, of Steubenville, Ohio, took a gap year between high school and college to earn money — and she was still expecting to take out loans for college. After joining the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, she is on a path to a debt-free degree.
“I’ve been stressing about that for God knows how long, so this program is like a dream for me,” she said. “Now, since I’m in the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, I can focus a lot more on my schooling than my financial situation.”
Crane is starting her college education at the Newark campus, with a plan to study biochemistry and eventually pursue a graduate degree in veterinary medicine. Her ultimate goal is to open her own practice as a veterinarian.
For students in the debt-free degree program, Ohio State will ensure that the total estimated cost of attendance will be covered through a combination of scholarships, grants, work-study and a family contribution. Individual students may utilize all or some of these components, as determined based on their Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
The university provided additional scholarships to 101 students in the pilot group, with an average award of $8,172. The other 24 students already had sufficient financial support and expected family contributions to cover the estimated cost of attendance.
Students pursuing debt-free degrees have made commitments as part of the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program. Each student in the pilot has agreed to:
- Maintain full-time enrollment and satisfactory academic progress
- Apply for available scholarships and grants each year through the FAFSA and the university’s ScholarshipUniverse tool, and utilizing financial aid counseling
- Pursue jobs and/or paid internships and research opportunities that allow them to contribute financially to their education and support their career exploration.
- Take part in learning experiences that focus on financial literacy and career development. For example, the university offered virtual workshops this summer on financial aid and student employment. This autumn, students will enroll in a Scarlet & Gray Advantage class.
Yahya Elmi, a Columbus resident and Metro Early College High School graduate, said the summer programs will help direct students toward a path of responsibility and financial literacy.
“It honestly helped me understand a lot of things like, what is a subsidized loan? What is the interest rate of those loans and things along those lines,” he said. “I feel like that was definitely very beneficial towards my future.”
The debt-free degree program reflects Ohio State’s comprehensive focus on affordability.
Ohio State has driven down student-debt numbers for four straight years. In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, 46% of Ohio State’s bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt. Among the borrowers, the average debt was $26,772. By comparison, 53% of the 2017 graduating class held student debt, for an average of $28,158.
Johnson unveiled details of the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program — including an $800 million fundraising campaign over the coming decade — during her investiture speech in November 2021. Donors have already committed more than $100 million in gifts and pledges, far outpacing university goals. Ohio State had set a goal of raising $58 million by the end of fiscal year 2022.
As Scarlet & Gray Advantage scales up, Ohio State is also working to expand and optimize affordability programs that will have far-reaching benefits to Ohio State students, regardless of their participation in the program. These include improvements to financial aid, financial coaching and other programming.
Mayfield High School graduate and Cleveland native Nadia Gerbasi said she’s excited to join the pilot program so future students can benefit.
To help Scarlet & Gray Advantage evolve “so that more students can walk in and just be a student like everyone else, no matter where they came from, that’s a really big deal. I think it's a beautiful thing. I feel super lucky to be part of the first group,” she said.
See advantage.osu.edu for more information about the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program.