Butler University creates 2-year debt-free college degree to help underserved students

Butler University will become the third US college to join a network that offers a two-year, debt-free associate degree program for students with a demonstrated financial need, university president James Danko announced Friday.

After earning an associate degree, the new program will allow students to receive a bachelor’s degree from the university for about $10,000, Danko said. The flat-rate tuition at Butler University for the 2023-2024 school year was $44,990, according to the university’s website.

“We were founded in 1855 by an abolitionist who firmly believed that education had to be available for people beyond just what was predominant at the time, obviously, White males,” Danko told CNN.

“We were not living out our founder’s dream … that set in motion a lot of conversation and discussion about how you would deliver a degree? What would the type of student look like?”

The new program aims to help students of color, first-generation college students and students from low-income households receive a higher education. Danko said the University will begin enrolling students in the two-year college next year for the Fall 2025 semester. It will be funded through endowments and donations, he added.

Butler’s debt-free program comes four months after the landmark decision by the Supreme Court to effectively end affirmative action at colleges and universities, which benefited students of color in higher education, CNN previously reported.

The program was created in partnership with the Come to Believe Network, an organization that provides advisory services to traditional four-year universities like Butler that want to create an affordable college program.

The Network has launched two similar colleges at Loyola University in Chicago and the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the goal of making college affordable and accessible to all students.

At Loyola’s Arrupe College, at least 76% of students are expected to graduate debt-free after completing the program, according to the school’s website.

For students who qualify for federal student aid at Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas, the average out-of-pocket payment was $2,970 for the 2020-2021 school year.

Carlos Martinez, a special projects manager at the Come to Believe Network and an Arrupe College alum, said his experience at Loyola’s program provided him not only with a debt-free education, but a sense of community.

“Yes, they did offer a great financial support. I did not have to take out loans at all for my undergrad. But what made it was the environment, the people there, the community, how caring everyone is,” Martinez told CNN.

Martinez went on to graduate from Loyola University with a Bachelor’s degree in 2021 and is currently pursuing graduate school at George Washington University.

Elazia Davison is a senior at Believe Circle City High School, a public charter school for traditionally underserved students in Indianapolis. He was able to earn his associate degree debt-free from a similar duel-enrollment program at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

Davison said he feels universities should invest in more debt-free college programs to create a pathway to higher education for students from underserved families.

“When you think about how you’re going to pay for college and how expensive it is … a lot of stress and a lot of trauma responses from not having necessities your entire life can come up,” Davison said.

“When you think about all the hard work that goes into you having the access to these classes, it just really shows you that education is important.”

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