FORTUNE: How free community college could help the student loan crisis, in one chart

Career College Central Summary:

  • Based on the reactions from some to President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free last week, you might think an associate’s degree already costs nothing.
  • The proposal drew praise from education activists, but some critics questioned whether the plan would really make that big of a difference, since—as Bloomberg View put it—”for many students, community college is effectively free already.”
  • To be sure, community college is relatively affordable—tuition runs $3,347 on average for the current school year, according to the College Board— especially when you compare it to the ballooning tuition rates at four-year public universities—$9,139 for in-state students—and private schools—$31,231. It’s important to note, as The Washington Post did, that tuition and fees (which aren’t covered by Obama’s plan) make up just 21% of the budget for students attending two-year public colleges and paying for off-campus housing during the 2014-2015 academic year. On average, these student are paying just over $3,000 for tuition but are also shelling out $7,705 for housing, $1,328 for books, and another $1,735 for transportation.
  • To cover those costs, community college students have to pay out-of-pocket, apply for Pell Grants, or—you guessed it—take out student loans.
  • And many community college students—even with that itsy, bitsy $3,347 annual tuition bill—are opting for loans. The average community college student owes $3,700, according to the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which crunched numbers from the Department of Education. (The DOE most recently surveyed debt total by institution type in 2009.) If you remove from the equation the students who decided not to take out loans, the average debt load for community college students is $10,000.
  • That sum is small compared to the money that borrowers at four-year college owe ($14,000 and $15,600 at public and private non-profit schools, respectively) and likely contributes to a small portion of the $1.2 trillion—and counting—that American students owe overall.

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