Compact of Ohio Colleges Helps Thousands of Students Complete Their Degrees
October 21, 2022

​As colleges across the country welcomed students back this fall, up to 15,000 people in Ohio who left college with no degree or certification might be among them. Eight public institutions in northeast Ohio are teaming up to remove barriers that have kept these students away from campus with a new program called the Ohio College Comeback Compact. The compact includes ACE members Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University, Lorain County Community College, and the University of Akron.

Approximately 39 million Americans have attended some college without earning a degree. Many stopped out of college because of financial challenges, health issues, family emergencies, or disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While many stopped-out students initially intend to reenroll, their likelihood of returning drops the longer they’re away.

The Ohio College Comeback Compact helps stopped-out students who have what are known as stranded credits, an obstacle to reenrollment that affects over 6 million Americans. Students’ credits become stranded when their institution withholds their transcript and prevents them from registering for classes to compel them to pay back money they owe. Without a transcript, these students can’t transfer schools unless they are willing to repeat courses. They also can’t secure jobs that pay commensurate with the education they received, hindering their ability to pay their debt.

The practice haunts students for years after they leave college. The unpaid debt damages their credit scores, while their lifetime earning potential could drop by hundreds of thousands of dollars with no degree.

Announcing his university’s participation in the compact, Kent State President Todd Diacon said, “Unlocking stranded credits should become the norm in higher education, as a college degree opens up life-changing opportunities that otherwise may not be accessible.”

This summer, the compact informed all eligible students—about 15,000 people—about the program and connected interested students with an adviser to make a reenrollment plan. Anyone who attended one of northeast Ohio’s eight public colleges, had at least a 2.0 GPA, has been out of school for a year or more, and owes $5,000 or less can enroll at any compact member this fall. The institutions will forgive $2,500 of debt for students who complete one semester and $5,000 of debt for those who complete two semesters or earn a degree, whichever comes first. This will eliminate most students’ debt.

The program provides critical flexibility. Colleges will forgive debt for all former students who participate, even if they enroll elsewhere. Most stopped-out students transfer to another school, an option that is rarely available to those with stranded credits. Being able to select the school with the best resources for them restores agency to students, which may increase their chances of graduating.

“Succeeding on our campus might mean that students who stopped out at University of Akron go somewhere else,” Cher Hendricks, the university’s senior vice provost, told Inside Higher Ed.

While colleges will lose students, they’ll also gain new ones, a boon for the compact’s members, all of which sustained enrollment declines this past year. They will also recoup some of their departed students’ debt, as students’ new schools will pay a portion of the tuition they collect to their original schools. Whether students transfer or reenroll, the infusion of new students and tuition payments will serve the entire compact.

“This is something that benefits everyone involved,” said Jennifer Demmerle, Cuyahoga Community College’s vice president of finance and business services. “It recovers stranded credits and puts students back into classrooms, and it creates more enrollment for the participating institutions.”

It could also indirectly benefit people throughout northeast Ohio by stimulating the local economy.

“This program will help build the workforce our region needs to fill in-demand jobs by providing these individuals with industry-relevant education and training,” said Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College.

If the compact succeeds in enticing students to return to school, similar partnerships could soon emerge across the country. Martin Kurzweil, who helped with coordinating the compact, told Higher Ed Dive that schools in other states have reached out about setting up their own compacts. “I think there could be a very rapid replication of the program,” said Kurzweil.


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