Ohio College Comeback Compact enters the next chapter

The name of the initiative is long. But, at heart, the goal of the Ohio College Comeback Compact is simple: to inspire more Northeastern Ohioans to return to college.

All four- and two-year public higher education institutions in the region – i.e. Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University, Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College, Stark State College, University of Akron and Youngstown State University — are participating.

After plans for the compact were first announced in late 2021, it’s ready to enter its next chapter.

The group targets a specific group of people who have stopped their studies and whose transcripts are withheld due to unpaid institutional debts. Think about things like unpaid tuition and/or fees owed directly to the college, not student loans.

This means that these students cannot take courses at their home institution or transfer to another college until these debts are cleared. Credits for courses they have already earned are effectively “locked in”. It is estimated that around 6.6 million people nationwide fall into this category.

Those at community colleges, which enroll higher populations of students of color as well as older and/or first-generation students compared to four-year institutions, are disproportionately affected, according to a 2020 report from Policy Matters. Ohio.

The pact focuses on about 15,000 eligible people in northeast Ohio who previously attended one of eight participating institutions and did not complete their degrees, according to a new report released this week by Ithaka S +R.

The nonprofit is guiding the pact’s work, along with a community partner at College Now Greater Cleveland as well as the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Foundation funding provides financial support.

There’s a new website where eligible people can flag themselves to get the ball rolling. Colleges will also begin outreach efforts to former — and, officials hope, soon to be current — students this month.

Before, when colleges were trying to reconnect, conversations could basically be summed up in one line: “Hey. Come back.”

That’s according to Heidi Nicholas, executive director of enrollment management and operations at Tri-C. But these cats can now take a different form for this population.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, you can come back now, because we have a solution to pay off your college debt,'” Nicholas said.

Here is that solution. Participating institutions will erase up to $5,000 of institutional debt once various requirements are met. For places like Tri-C, this will take care of the vast majority of outstanding student amounts. The average balance is estimated to be around $1,000, most often for unpaid tuition.

Additionally, their transcript will be released, allowing students to return to the college where they started or enroll at another participating institution. Students will also receive more in-depth guidance from College Now and institutions to help them create a re-enrollment plan. Meeting with an advisor twice on campus once registered is also one of the requirements for participation.

The arrangement provides for inter-institutional payments if a student goes to another school. It is important. Enrollment has plummeted at colleges both nationally and locally, with the COVID-19 pandemic already amplifying existing struggles on that front. Fewer students, of course, means lower incoming tuition.

“The pandemic has siled them,” said Maggie McGrath, executive director of the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland, of local colleges. “It was about survival and how we cope. I think they’ve felt that through the pandemic and a bit still, honestly.”

So now, even though institutions are working with their competitors, McGrath said coming together on this initiative helps foster a spirit of collaboration between them. After all, they remain focused on the same end goal of getting students to complete their degrees, which in turn can help the region.

“Ohio’s businesses need educated workers, and that need is growing with the unprecedented number of multinational corporations coming to our state,” said Randy Gardner, Chancellor of the Department of Higher Education at Ohio. Ohio, in the Ithaka release. “The goal of the Ohio College Comeback Compact is to encourage adults to return to college to complete their education so they can advance their careers in our growing economy.”

As for the measures, pact officials believe the effort will be considered a success “if it helps Ohioans return to college, earn their degrees or certificates, and reduce or eliminate the money they owe to their old schools,” they wrote online, adding that they’ll be watching the results ‘closely’.