Today’s student in the United States enters a higher education system different from the one experienced by previous generations. A decades-long drop in public investment in higher education (especially at the state level) has laid a greater responsibility on the tuition paying student, often leading to burdensome levels of debt to obtain a degree. But there still exists an affordable path to higher education, and even a debt-free plan – community college.

The concept of debt-free college has gained much interest in recent years, especially as some politicians in the ongoing presidential race have proposed plans to make higher education more affordable. At the same time, President Obama has put forth a plan to make community college free.

So what does debt-free college really mean? It’s an important distinction to note the difference between tuition-free and debt-free college. Tuition is only one part of a student or family’s expenses for higher education, and those additional expenses can add up quickly when accounting for living expenses, books, computers, child care, transportation and more.

Two states – Oregon and Tennessee – are leading the debt-free community college efforts. Their state debt-free college programs provide last dollar grants to those that qualify. Last dollar grants cover the cost difference between tuition price and aid received from the federal government. Tennessee incorporated a mentoring program as well, designed to help students with their college selection and education.

For the present and for the foreseeable future, one of the best ways to save money while paying for college will continue to be beginning one’s studies at a community college. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average tuition of community college per year is $2,272 compared to $5,836 for four-year public colleges. Community colleges have continued to grow in popularity, enrolling 43 percent of all undergraduates nationwide. Given the cost savings and quality of education, it’s easy to see why.

The price of college may not only deter students from considering furthering their education, but it is often a barrier to completion. Many students work multiple jobs and struggle to balance financial and academic demands. That is why community colleges go the extra mile to combine quality instruction and valuable services at an affordable price. On top of low tuition rates, community college students also have access to financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, loans and work study.

At Waubonsee Community College, we continue to challenge our faculty and staff to seek creative and innovative ways to offset cuts in state funding in such a way that our students will not shoulder that burden. Those efforts have resulted in accomplishments like our $2.6 million Title V Grant from the Department of Education and our Dunham Fund Grant, which will enable us to launch an accelerated associate degree program this year.

The challenge and virtue of the American community college system has been our ability to make higher education – and a path toward prosperity – attainable for anyone seeking a college degree. Now more than ever, our role in the higher education system is critical to the future of this country and the millions who reach for something better for themselves and their families.