‘College comeback’ program forgives debts so students can finish their degree

An Ohio program is drawing attention for its efforts to re-enroll students with “stranded credits”—academic credits they have earned but cannot access due to an unpaid balance and resulting transcript hold. The program, called the Ohio College Comeback Compact, offers to forgive up to $5,000 in institutional debt and release the transcripts of students who previously attended one of eight participating community colleges or four-year public universities, provided that the student re-enrolls at one of those schools and completes at least two semesters; completion of one semester will earn $2,500 in forgiveness, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Related: Pilot program tries a ‘win-win-win’ approach to releasing stranded credits >

A problem affecting millions

Millions of students have some college credit but no credential, and approximately 6.6 million students have stranded credits, according to the non-profit higher education firm Ithaka S+R, which launched the Ohio College Comeback Compact. Community college students with stranded credits have an average unpaid balance of $631; for students at research institutions, the average is $4,393.

Related: Rethinking transcript holds for students with outstanding balances >

Efforts to lift transcript holds have increased as advocates look for ways to reduce obstacles to college completion. Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that a particular kind of institutional hold—one resulting from a loan made by the student’s institution—violates the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Some states also have prohibited institutions from withholding transcripts.

Bringing Ohio students back to college

Announced in 2021, the Ohio College Comeback Compact brought together institutions that already had active transfer pipelines and experience collaborating with each other. During the pilot year, participating organizations notified 9,109 former students of their eligibility and offered to help them create a re-enrollment plan that advances their careers; 156 re-enrolled—a success, given that “in the absence of the Compact, none of the 9,109 students would have been able to continue their education,” Ithaka S+R notes.

During the program’s pilot phase, the eight participating colleges forgave $135,000 in student balances. Among the returning students who participated in the program, “the vast majority” obtained debt resolution or were on track to do so. In addition, participating institutions saw a positive return on investment—bringing in more tuition revenue from re-enrolled students than the debt they canceled.

“We’re all playing the game of how to get adult students back to college,” Melanie Carr, manager of advising at Stark State College in Canton, Ohio, tells Inside Higher Ed. “This is a way to get them back.”

A national model?

Given the success of the College Comeback Compact, education advocacy groups such as the Lumina, Kresge, and Joyce Foundations have joined Ithaka S+R to expand the program, increase enrollment, and implement it in other states over the next two years.

Part of that expansion depends on finding better ways to engage stopped out students, who often have additional competing responsibilities since leaving school. Organizers also say counseling will be critical, to help ensure students are ready not only to re-enroll but also to complete their education.

Removing barriers that perpetuate disparities

“There is a nationwide need for solutions” to stranded credits, Ithaka S+R writes. Stranded credits often set up barriers to a college degree and employment for students with the fewest financial resources. Low-income students, adult learners, and students from historically underrepresented communities are most likely to have unpaid balances and stranded credits. Students facing those obstacles, in turn, are less likely to complete their degree and secure high-paying jobs.

“Programs like this are one avenue states can take to combat the college affordability barriers many students face,.” Lexi Anderson, development director for the Education Commission of the States, told Inside Higher Ed.

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