Blog Post | June 7, 2023

Paving the Way: Strategies for Achieving Debt-Free College 

Author: Jocelyn Salguero

The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) commissioned leading academics to write a series of papers to inform the policy conversation about how to implement effective, equitable, and sustainable solutions to the college affordability crisis.

The resulting compendium, Paving the Path to Debt-Free College, highlights the critical need for a new federal-state partnership to provide students with the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education without incurring crushing levels of student debt.

The goal of these papers is not to establish the definitive, optimal way to design a path to debt-free college. Rather, they are meant to inform the policy conversation about how to clarify policy goals and acknowledge tradeoffs in considerations for how to effectively and equitably address the ongoing crisis of high costs, high debt burdens, and decreasing confidence in the value of higher education.

The first three papers outline the current college financing landscape, examine the trade-offs of recent federal-state funding partnership proposals, and discuss potential policy options for reducing reliance on debt, including implementing state and local promise programs, and increasing funding to historically underserved institutions:

  • State and Federal Partnerships for College Affordability: Assessing the Options. Jennifer Delaney and William Doyle consider the structural barriers facing state support for higher education and evaluate four recent federal-state partnership proposals. Their analysis details underlying assumptions in the higher education system and cost challenges faced by the sector, the diversity of higher education systems and funding models across the states, and structural barriers that higher education funding faces within state budgets.


  • Creating a Federal-State Partnership to Guarantee Affordability for Students Through Free College. Kelly Rosinger tracks the growth in free college programs at the local and state levels, provides an overview of design variations, and outlines policy recommendations for designing an equitable and effective federal free college program.


  • Federal-State Partnerships: Why Centering Support for Rural, Regional, and Minority-Serving Institutions Can Improve College Affordability and Student Success in the U.S. Vanessa Sansone examines the funding disparities between public flagship universities and Rural-Serving Institutions, Regional Comprehensive Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions—and how these disparities contribute to a lack of resources for colleges that serve a racially and economically diverse student body. The paper presents recommendations for expanding funding at open-access universities to improve overall educational attainment and close equity gaps in enrollment and completion rates.

The last three papers examine specific components that could be addressed as part of a larger federal-state funding partnership proposal: using longitudinal data to close equity gaps; improving student academic outcomes by establishing minimum standards for faculty; and how research institutions can preserve the research mission while limiting students’ exposure to associated costs.

  • Improving and Using Data to Close Success Gaps. David Troutman discusses how more (and better) longitudinal data can inform policymakers in their quest to reduce success gaps, and outlines ways the federal government can incentivize states to collect, link, report, and act on such data.


  • Ensuring Instructional Quality With Increasing Reliance on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty. Di Xu examines the impact that contingent and part-time faculty utilization can have on student outcomes and faculty well-being, alongside concerns that a major new federal funding injection could spur increased enrollment and further accelerate the use of such faculty. The paper then discusses how policymakers can address these concerns in a federal-state funding partnership.


  • The Research Mission and College Affordability: Context and Policy Recommendations. Brendan Cantwell examines the role of research universities in the college affordability discussion, including the importance of the research mission, how the research mission has expanded, and how some of the costs of research are passed on to students. He then outlines ways that policymakers can preserve the research mission while limiting students’ exposure to the cost of research.

Next Steps: Defining the Path to Debt-Free College

By providing policymakers with clear, actionable recommendations, Paving the Path to Debt-Free College lays the groundwork for meaningful progress in the effort to make higher education more affordable and accessible for all students. TICAS believes we must strive for a future where all students can earn a degree at a public college without needing to take on debt.

Covering tuition alone—and especially doing so only for community colleges, where other costs of attendance can be more burdensome than tuition itself—will not truly move the needle on affordability (or sufficiently increase completion rates). To do so, federal policymakers must fully address the “affordability gap” that remains after federal and state aid is applied toward the total cost of attending a public college.

To that end, TICAS is working to develop a new policy proposal in the coming months that explores how a new federal-state funding partnership could work in tandem with existing (and, ideally, increased) state funding for public colleges and need-based grant aid.