One of the best things about working in education is watching students, some from modest-income families, graduate and go on to work in careers that are meaningful, drive economic and social mobility, and ultimately improve communities.

This is the dream of higher education that inspires both students and educators. But this dream becomes a nightmare when young people pile up $60,000, $100,000 or even $140,000 in student debt as the Sun-Times reported in “A Generation Buried in Student Loan Debt” on June 3. It’s unsettling to see these young people weighed down with the anxiety of debt they may carry their entire lives.

OPINION

There is a better way. We must radically rethink the business model in general, and tuition specifically, so that students never encounter astronomical charges in the first place.

National Louis University put some bright minds on the task of designing a quality college degree program at a tuition of $10,000 per year. Tapping into instructional design, educational technology and good old-fashioned human support, they achieved it. Students can proceed through a carefully-engineered four-year program, called Pathways at NLU, and obtain a degree for $40,000. For underserved students, state and federal grants will cover the entire tuition resulting in zero debt.

A handful of universities around the nation are employing similar techniques, though Pathways is the only one to offer all of its innovative features. While most universities designed their programs to enable students from lower-earning families to go to college, anyone who wants to avoid heavy debt is welcome to enroll. The educational playing field is leveled so that every student has the opportunity to pursue a quality affordable education.

Many students see the appeal. The program launched in 2015 with 85 students, then grew to about 300 students the following year, about 800 this year and 1,200 next year. MSN Money reported National Louis University was the second-fastest growing university in the nation, in terms of student applications, because of it.

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So how does one design a college program for $10,000 per year? Pathways uses a recently-developed personalized adaptive learning system to allow students to learn at their own pace. They attend class on campus two full days per week, leaving the other days flexible for studying online and working. Each learner is assigned a student success coach for support, and all the coaches meet weekly to discuss each student’s progress. There are small class sizes, a defined series of courses and Career Bridge services to facilitate securing jobs after graduation.

This high-tech, high-touch approach has been rewarded with grants of more than $1 million each from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

That money will help National Louis to scale the program and someday offer it to other universities to replicate. We hope that students everywhere in the country who cannot afford to accrue significant debt will easily be able to earn a respected college degree for just $40,000. Instead of walking off a commencement stage with a heavy burden of loans, this allows a student to graduate carrying something light — a parchment diploma.

Nivine Megahed, Ph.D., is president of National Louis University, Chicago.

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