If one of the largest land-grant institutions in the country can undertake an effort like this, there’s no reason why every college and university can’t do the same.
With public debate swirling around federal loan forgiveness, one question is top of mind for higher education leaders: What can we do to make college more affordable? Nationally, nearly two-thirds of students graduated with college debt in 2019. The maximum Pell grant covers only 29 percent of a four-year public university's average tuition, fees, room, and board. President Kristina M. Johnson introduced the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program in late 2021, making The Ohio State University the first public institution to propose a debt-free program at scale. A pilot is now underway and, within a decade, entering first-year students will have pathways to graduate with a bachelor’s degree debt-free. The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program expands access to career opportunities, promotes financial literacy, and includes other support services to help students from all backgrounds attain the benefits of a bachelor’s degree. ATI interviewed President Johnson about this initiative for its Presidential Perspective series, editing it for clarity.
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Q: Can you tell us more about the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program? What differentiates it from other no-loan programs at public institutions?
The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program provides our undergraduate students with pathways to earn their degrees without taking on college debt. Students participating in the program will have enhanced access to scholarships, help finding paid internships and work opportunities, and access to learning experiences focused on financial well-being and career development. All three of these elements are important. Without having to borrow to pay for college, Buckeyes will enjoy the financial freedom to pursue more opportunities after graduation. And we want to equip them with the experiences and tools to help them make the most of each one.
The program is not free college, nor is it debt elimination. Instead, it empowers students to proactively avoid debt in the first place through a combination of scholarships, family contributions, paid internships and other work opportunities, financial coaching, and career development.
So, the Scarlet & Gray Advantage's structure differs from other programs that replace loans with grants or cover tuition costs for certain students. What’s also unique is its scale. Ohio State has more than 51,000 undergraduates across six campuses. And if one of the largest land-grant institutions in the country can undertake an effort like this, there’s no reason why every college and university can’t do the same.
Q: How does the Scarlet & Gray Advantage fit into your overall vision for access, success, and equity?
It’s absolutely essential. Land-grant universities like Ohio State were created to expand access to higher education and all the opportunities a college degree can create. Yet, in far too many cases, we see that higher education in the United States is calcifying economic advantage rather than helping graduates achieve the American dream.
While the causes of this are many, affordability is a central component. People without family means — which includes many of the country’s students from underrepresented backgrounds — must borrow to pay for their degrees. This means they start their adult lives in a financial hole that limits their choices after graduation. We want all students to have the freedom to pursue any life path after graduation, whether that means pursuing a particular career, starting an advanced degree, launching a business, or buying a home.
If a university education remains the single best way for young people of all backgrounds to engineer their own rise, imagine how much further they can climb without the burden of student loans. By providing debt-free pathways to a bachelor’s degree, we erase this financial baggage and remove barriers that prevent students from completing their education — or pursuing it at all. As important, we want access to college to translate into opportunities after graduation. That’s the core reason behind the Scarlet & Gray Advantage.
Q: The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program will require 800 million dollars over the next decade. How do you plan to finance and sustain this commitment?
I never underestimate the ability of the Ohio State community to get something done. When I first announced the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program in November 2021, I asked our alumni, donors, and friends for their support in helping transform the lives of future graduates. They responded in a huge way.
We committed to raising $800 million for undergraduate scholarships within 10 years, and we are already well on our way there thanks to the generosity of Buckeyes all over the world. In less than a year, we’ve already passed the $100 million mark in gifts and pledges.
The Scarlet & Gray Advantage program is designed to be sustainable, so scholarships are just one part of the equation. Students and their families are invested in the effort through their contributions to the cost of education, work, and learning experiences. At the same time, the university continues to optimize our support services, including financial coaching and career development opportunities. Providing debt-free pathways also further incentivize the university to keep tuition and fee increases to a minimum.
Q: This is a significant investment. Which stakeholders (e.g., trustees, cabinet members, faculty) were critical to launching this effort and how did you mobilize support among them? Were there any messages that really resonated?
We are fortunate to have so many strong partners who want to help open more doors of opportunity to students. As we’ve talked to alumni, donors, corporate partners, and government leaders, we’ve seen strong interest in Scarlet & Gray Advantage because we have an achievable plan that enables students to earn a debt-free undergraduate degree.
Affordability has been a big focus of my conversations with state and federal lawmakers. We all understand the need for solutions and the fact that everyone has a role to play in developing and deploying them. The recent increase to the maximum Pell Grant is making a real difference for our students. So is additional funding from the State of Ohio, including need-based aid and institutional support.
As I mentioned previously, our university community has been simply outstanding. Our alumni and friends are blowing past fundraising goals, students have been generous in sharing their insights and experiences, and those on our campuses standing the program up are deeply committed to success. You can feel the momentum building to a point where it starts to create its own energy.
Q: What lessons have you learned from this effort that you think could benefit other ATI presidents, especially at other large public institutions?
Regardless of what a particular program sets out to accomplish, paying attention to the experiences of those it impacts remains central to any degree of success. With the Scarlet & Gray Advantage program, we had a vision for what it would be and how it would work when we announced it. Now that we’ve launched the program’s pilot with 125 new, first-year students across our campuses, our job is to listen and learn. We are building this in a stepwise way to provide space to incorporate their feedback, understand the strengths of our current offerings, and find out where we need to devote more resources as we scale up.
The initiative also demonstrates the importance and the power of everyone playing their part. For students, staff, donors, and elected officials alike, we find that their enthusiasm grows as they learn how they can help create opportunities for students — and as they recognize that everyone else is equally invested in the success of this effort.
We’ll have a lot more insight to share as time goes on. But, for now, I’m excited to continue engaging with all of our partners to help this grow.