Disagree on free: college sans tuition could halt student debt.

Author:Maurer, Kevin
Position:NC TREND: Community colleges


As student loans balloon to the tune of $1.3 trillion, so has talk of tuition-free college. Hillary Clinton wants to make public four-year institutions free for most Americans.

But several states and cities are looking to community colleges for the solution to student debt. Nearly half of all students who completed a degree at a four-year school in 2014 had enrolled in a two-year institution at some point in the previous 10 years. In 2015, North Carolina attempted to join Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota in launching a tuition-free community-college program, but a bill failed to make it out of committee. N.C. Rep. Jeffrey Elmore plans to bring back the measure next year. His "last dollar" grant for high school grads with a GPA of 3.5 or higher is similar to Tennessee's Promise Program. President Obama has proposed a "first dollar" program that would allow students to receive full financial aid and promise grants.

In the 2014-15 school year, 735,000 students attended classes at North Carolina's 58 campuses.

Tuition and fees are capped at $1,299 per semester at N.C. schools.

Colleges also can charge for parking, tools, uniforms and other local fees. North Carolina ranks as the third least expensive in the nation for average tuition and fees after California and New Mexico. Vermont has the highest costs.

The national average is $16,833

While community-college tuition is relatively low, it's about 20% of what the average student spends annually on food, housing, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses.

59% of national community-college grads leave a two-year program debt free.

But those who do leave with debt are more likely to default on their loans than their counterparts at four-year public schools--19.1% compared with 7.6%.

4.1 years is the average time for an N.C. student to complete a degree.

Though statistics do not weed out students who finish degrees at other institutions, experts agree that national completion rates have stagnated. Two views:

About 20% of first-time, full-time students who started at community colleges in 2010 earned a certificate or associate degree from the same institution within 150% of the normal time. "Normal" is three years for an associate degree but could be a shorter amount...

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