A Debt-Free College Degree

A debt free college degree. This sounds almost too good to be true, like a campaign promise that you aren’t totally sure is possible. Well, I am here to tell you that this statement is not only possible, but it exists here and now at AdvanceEDU. Students can earn a high-quality college degree from respected and accredited, nonprofit higher education institutions, free from debt. In this post we will discuss how this formerly “radical” idea has become a reality. But first I want to discuss why this matters to me. 

Why this matters to me 

My college career began 13 years ago last month. I truly loved my college experience. I met the most incredible people who became lifelong friends and I engaged deeply as a member of our campus community advocating for the issues I believed in. While my degree was in International Affairs, my education was in student activism. I spent my college years in the student government fighting for an equitable, affordable, and accessible higher education for all. Though I believed in these values at my core, I was never quite sure we’d achieve them especially because Colorado ranks 47th in the nation in terms of higher education funding. 

Those four years were a wonderful time in my life, and for the most part I look back on that experience with a sense of nostalgic appreciation. But like countless others, I left college with a mountain of student loan debt (that I have YEARS still left to pay off) and a growing voice in the back of my head always asking “is this really the only way to earn a college degree?” 

Student debt continues to be a consistent stressor in my life and has also created financial difficulties in securing the life goals that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve. Such things as affording the ring to propose to my now-wife, buying a house and car, and comfortably covering the expenses of quality child care of our first child. My wife and I have been fortunate in our careers and lives to make these goals and dreams a reality despite our student loan debt, but they have not been without significant stress, strategic budgeting, and sometimes compromising on our goals. Unfortunately, this is not a unique experience for students graduating across Colorado. On average graduating students in Colorado walk away with $13,643 in debt for a two-year degree and $26,505 for a four-year degree. Even worse off are the students, often of color, who are failed by the higher education system and leave saddled with debt and no degree to show for it.

Fast forward to February 2020 when Lauren Trent, AdvanceEDU’s CEO, explained the student-centered model of AdvanceEDU with its personalized support, self-paced coursework, career coaching, and overall affordability. As she continued, I found myself waiting for the giant BUT…thankfully it never came. I knew I had come across the answer to a debt-free education students have been fighting for decades to find.

How does it work

The beauty of the model is in its simplicity. AdvanceEDU’s tuition is $6,400 a year which is just $55 above the 2020/2021 max Pell Grant award. The Pell Grant is a federal aid program that helps students cover the cost of their undergraduate degree and promotes access to postsecondary education particularly for low-income students. Unlike loans the Pell Grant is not something that needs to be paid back. You can learn more about the Pell Grant here

Through this affordability commitment, 85% of students in this model graduate with zero debt. Imagine how a degree and no student loan debt could change so many lives for the better.

Thanks to our partnership with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), our first higher education partner, and their innovative online competency-based delivery model, we are able to keep the cost of learning very low without sacrificing quality. This still includes access to important academic services such as SNHU’s writing center, faculty, and peer tutoring. Furthermore, because the cost of learning is so low we are able to invest much more into the critical wraparound support that students need to be successful in college. This includes personalized success coaching, childcare services, meal support, access to technology, and extended campus hours designed to meet the needs of our students who are working or have family commitments. 

We also work hard to help students who are either not Pell-eligible or are not fully Pell-eligible so that they can obtain a debt-free or as close to debt-free degree as possible. This includes helping students identify and secure other scholarship opportunities including ones we have directly provided to our first two cohorts of students. In addition, because of the project-based nature of these degrees, students are able to move much quicker through the content than a traditional college experience. On average students are completing an Associates degree in a year and a half and a Bachelor’s degree in under three years. This helps further alleviate the debt burden because students are spending less time earning their degree and therefore pay less. Because it’s worth repeating: 85% of students in our model are graduating with zero student loan debt and the remaining 15% are graduating with an average of $6,000 — well below the average debt load for students graduating from two- and four-year institutions in Colorado. 

The student experience

At AdvanceEDU we are acutely focused on students completing their degree in a timely fashion, but we know that a well-rounded college experience is more than that. We are establishing a thriving community of learners at AdvanceEDU, one that engages in discussions on the most important issues of the day, that participates civically, and is building the skills and experiences necessary to succeed in their careers. 

Our program is built on four key pillars:

  1. High-quality online degree programs 
  2. Deep and personalized support 
  3. Career advancement coaching and resources 
  4. Building a foundation for community leadership 

Just as my college days included a plethora of experiences to engage civically and learn in a non-traditional environment, we provide many opportunities for AdvanceEDU students to showcase and deepen their learning. This includes access to mentoring, volunteering, internships/apprenticeships, panel discussions, and many other ways for students to experience a 360-degree approach to their education. 

Our students are the leaders of today and tomorrow and their brilliant ideas, thoughts, and questions are too valuable not to encourage and share with our greater community. 

“How do I get involved?”

That’s the easiest part of all! We want to welcome you into our flourishing community. As a student, or as a committed partner. 

If you are interested in becoming an AdvanceEDU student contact us by emailing: Vanessa.Roman@myadvanceedu.org or by signing up for a phone call to discuss your options. 

If you are interested in becoming an education, community, or industry partner contact us by emailing: Anthony.DeLaRosa@myadvanceedu.org.

We can’t wait to have you join us! 

Anthony DeLaRosa serves as Head of Partnerships & Strategy at AdvanceEDU. 

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