Educators and others are working to keep student loan debt from climbing so high in the future.

Educators and others are working to keep student loan debt from climbing so high in the future.

David Harrison, president of Columbus State Community College, notes Ohio ranks 39th in the nation for high student debt, "and that's an important competitive difference." But he is hopeful that steps taken by the Ohio General Assembly in the state budget bill in June "will help us start to close that gap" and reduce the need for debt remedies down the road.

Harrison points to the Preferred Pathway initiative that Columbus State initially developed with Ohio State University and then grew to seven other public and private universities before it was incorporated into the state budget. Known as a 2+2 pathway, it enables those who attain two-year associate degrees at an Ohio community college to transfer credits toward a bachelor's degree at Ohio's four-year universities. Savings can be 30 percent or more, reducing tuition costs for an OSU bachelor's degree from $40,000 to just over $28,000.

Those still in high school can increase savings by taking advantage of College Credit Plus, a program in state law about a year, to let high school students earn college credit free.

A 3+1 partnership between Columbus State and Franklin University allows certain students to get bachelor's degrees with 75 percent of their tuition at Columbus State's rates of about $4,000 a year, Harrison says.

"Our position is if students and families are fully informed, student debt really is a choice for many families. If students fully maximize College Credit Plus, which is at no cost, and then do as much of their education at Columbus State, which is a third or even less than the cost of tuition of universities, and then finish their bachelor's degree at a public or private university, that can be affordable for most families, or at least allow them to take on much less than the average student debt load of $28,000 or $30,000," Harrison says.

Or, students can get a two-year associate's degree and then enter the workforce, where employers may reimburse their costs to continue their education toward a bachelor's degree.

"That's a pathway that's open to every student, and we're seeing more and more students take advantage of it and a few companies start to plan around it from a workforce planning perspective," Harrison says.

He cites a relationship with Honda in which Columbus State helps train employees for its sophisticated manufacturing process and also partners with the automaker in high schools to "bring younger people into that pipeline. That's a model that we want to expand and they want to expand at Honda, but it's also transferrable to other companies and other industries."

"We are highlighting technical careers here that require only an associate's degree," says Scot McLemore, technical workforce development manager at Honda. In a work-study pilot program, three associates were offered full-time technician positions after working part time and completing associate's degrees part time, with five more entering the program in June, he says.

Meanwhile, OSU President Michael Drake is touring the state to talk about making a college education more affordable. Efforts include holding the line on tuition and fees, seeking operational efficiencies and increasing need-based financial aid, boosted by $15 million in President's Affordability Grants of up to $1,500 for more than 12,400 low- and middle-income students. Drake announced the new grants in June, saying, "College affordability is one of the most important and pressing issues of our time."

Drake's concern is reinforced by the National Student Financial Wellness Study, released in July by OSU's Office of Student Life and the College of Education and Human Ecology. The study showed 70 percent of students are stressed by their finances and 60 percent worry about being able to pay for school. The survey of nearly 19,000 students at 52 colleges and universities across the country found 64 percent used loans to finance their education. One quarter expect to owe between $30,000 and $50,000 when they graduate, 14 percent predict debt of up to $80,000 and seven percent anticipate more than $80,000 in student debt.

"We try to be proactive with students early in their college career with the idea of hoping to have some effect on the amount that they're borrowing while they're enrolled," says study co-author Bryan Ashton, assistant director of OSU's Student Wellness Center in the Office of Student Life. After graduation, when students must start paying off their loans, some employers may offer financial planning assistance, Ashton says.

Student loan debt is high on the agenda of the Create Columbus Commission, which advises Mayor Michael Coleman and Columbus City Council on issues impacting young professionals. Chair Jordan Davis says the commission talks a lot about long-term goals of home ownership and investing in retirement "and a huge factor in our ability to do that is this debt that so many of us carry from higher education."

Harrison sees long-term consequences if student debt doesn't decline.

"You're going to have people in their 30s and 40s still paying for their own college at the very time when they should be saving for their children's education, so the possibility that this could really have a generational impact is legitimate. I'm in the business so I pay attention to it," he says.