Making a dent in student debt

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON — There are two words that can rock people with regret.

Just ask them about their “student loans.” Then watch their faces. They will wince as they disclose how much education debt they’re carrying.

Politicians have been promising to fix the growing loan crisis for years, but outstanding student debt has now mushroomed to $1.4 trillion. Meanwhile, a college degree has become out of reach for so many — unless they’re willing to go deep into debt.

But Steve Klinsky, founder and chief executive of the private equity firm New Mountain Capital, has invested his own money in a solution that will help lots of people get through college with less debt.

Klinsky founded Modern States Education Alliance, a New York City-based nonprofit that wants to make college more affordable through its “Freshman Year for Free” program.

The philanthropic program is open to anyone — high school students, military personnel or adult learners — with no limit on age, location or income. All you need is an internet connection. It’s called “Freshman Year for Free” because students have access to free online courses that prepare them to pass Advanced Placement exams and the College Level Examination Program tests, which are both offered through the College Board. Students who score well on the subject-area exams can earn enough college credit to knock out their freshman year, potentially saving as much as 25 percent on tuition.

And there’s more: Textbooks and materials are free. And for the first 10,000 test takers, Modern States is giving out vouchers to pay the exam fees. The College Board charges $92 for each AP exam and $85 per CLEP test. You have to go through the coursework to get a voucher, but you aren’t limited in how many you can get. You can register and take the self-paced courses at

“We are trying to create an onramp for people who want an education,” Klinsky said.

You’ll find many more options for CLEP classes on the Modern States site, and that’s a good thing. AP exams are offered only in May, but the lesser known CLEP tests can be taken year-round, making them more accessible to nontraditional students. Modern States teamed up with, a nonprofit founded by Harvard University and MIT that also offers an online platform of free classes.

After working 10 years as a correctional officer, Lester Felton, 32, wanted to change careers. He’s now going to Rowan College in New Jersey to become a history teacher. With help from Modern States, he passed the CLEP exam for Western Civilization II and is now studying principles of management. He plans to take eight more courses.

“There’s nothing like being able to better yourself with somebody giving you something and not asking for anything in return,” Felton said. “I appreciate that. I needed that.”

If you’re wondering how good the courses are, here’s proof: During the pilot phase, in which 150 students went through various CLEP courses, 70 percent passed their exams, according to David Vise, executive director of Modern States and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked at The Washington Post.

Home-schooled student William Rush, 17, is on track to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, in part because of the courses he’s been taking through Modern States. The Vancouver, Washington, resident has used Modern States material to pass five CLEP exams, and he got vouchers for four of the test fees, his mother said.

“It means so much to us,” Melissa Rush said. “In a way, it feels like they have partnered with us, to benefit William.”

The program’s freshman-level college courses are taught by professors from top-ranked schools such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers and George Washington University.

Concerned about the quality of the courses because they’re not taught in a classroom? You shouldn’t be, says Paul Schiff Berman, a former dean of the George Washington University Law School, who developed and teaches the “Introduction to Business Law” course. Berman oversaw more than 100 online degree and certificate programs at George Washington.

“If the choice is a 300-person lecture course in a giant lecture hall with a mediocre professor or a really well-taught interactive online course, I’m confident the online experience will be better educationally,” Berman said.

Since CLEP credits are accepted at 2,900 universities worldwide, the Freshman Year for Free program is a viable way to cut costs, said Rebecca Lubot, an adjunct lecturer at Rutgers, who recently finished filming the American Government CLEP course. To see which colleges accept CLEP credits go to

“This program is a game-changer,” Vise said.

“If it will reduce the amount of debt students take on, I believe it is, too.”

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