Oakland University didn't wait for direction from Washington or Lansing before unleashing its own stimulus plan: debt-free tuition for the class of 2013. At a time when many high school seniors in Michigan aren't sure whether they'll be able to afford college next year, Oakland is investing money to ensure they can.
Oakland administrators devised the debt-free tuition plan at the end of last year -- along with a Special Assistance Fund for current students -- so tuition costs are no deterrent to the new freshman class.
For the class of 2013, Oakland will foot the bill for tuition over and above a student's expected family contribution, as determined by the U.S. Department of Education when students and their parents fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA program is aimed at low-income students. Room, board and books are still the responsibility of individual students, but the tuition assistance is guaranteed for all four years.
Oakland shifted $1.4 million from its general fund to pay for the program in its first year and will invest at least as much to meet student needs in subsequent years.
But as bold as the debt-free tuition plan is, it would be incredibly shortsighted if it only applied to the class of 2013, as administrators have indicated. Why is it any more acceptable for the class of 2014 and beyond to graduate with debt?
Financial aid director Cindy Hermsen insists that nothing is set in stone and that Oakland re-evaluates its financial aid program each year. The debt-free tuition plan wasn't devised until November, for instance.
Hermsen added that the Special Assistance Fund, also created in November, will provide tuition assistance on a case-by-case basis to students whose financial circumstances changed while attending classes, will still be available to current students and to those who need it in the class of 2013 and beyond.
As administrators consider next year's financial aid packages, they should consider expanding the debt-free tuition program, perhaps even making it a permanent fixture at Oakland University. Of course, Oakland and other public universities in Michigan should always help all of their students by finding efficiencies that reduce operating costs and keep tuition down.
But the debt-free tuition program could give the well-regarded Rochester school a competitive advantage -- at least until other schools take up the idea.
Oakland would then still have the distinction of being a leader in creating a program to help keep college affordable.