WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released the first in a series of profiles and interactive tools that highlight innovative practices to promote degree completion and close postsecondary attainment gaps in Lumina Foundation’s Talent Hubs.
The first profile uplifts institutional debt-forgiveness as a strategy to reengage students who have “stopped out” from a higher education institution. It highlights an example from Detroit, M.I., where Wayne State University’s “Warrior Way Back” program is forgiving a portion of a student’s outstanding debt to the institution as they reenroll and earn credits towards completion. The first tool, IHEP’s “Reengagement Investment Calculator,” helps quantify the potential Return on Investment (ROI) of implementing a similar debt-forgiveness program at the user’s institution.
Nationwide, 35 million adults have earned some college credits, but have yet to earn a degree or credential. Many of these students struggle to afford the growing cost of postsecondary education and are often unable to complete their degrees because of financial holds on their institutional accounts. These holds can be enormous barriers for today’s students, especially low-income students and students of color – discouraging them from remaining on the pathway to degree completion, while also preventing returning students from reenrolling in higher education.
Recognizing these challenges, representatives at Wayne State University put forth a simple and innovative idea for reengaging stopped-out students: forgiving a portion of their debt to the institution. While the institution forfeits some funds initially, the revenue generated from students reenrolling and staying enrolled has resulted in a net gain of $200,000 for the university in the first seven months of the program.
The Wayne State example makes a striking business case for forgiveness of institutional student debt, but the impact of these programs can extend far beyond institutional finances. In order to ensure that returning students are successful, the institution must also rethink the supports they offer to students to help them stay on the path towards completion. At Wayne State, institutional leadership expanded need-based aid, provided access to more advisors, and revised degree requirements with student success in mind. When matched with other equity-minded supports, forgiveness of institutional student debt holds the potential to help boost degree attainment in states and local communities and remove fundamental barriers for returning students hoping to complete their college education.
IHEP interviewed the key institutional representatives who created Wayne State’s program to learn more about its initial impact and lessons learned about the program’s goals, structure, and implementation. The representatives emphasized the importance of strong leadership, cross-campus partnerships, and institutional buy-in.
IHEP developed a corresponding new tool, a “Reengagement Investment Calculator,” that equips institutional leaders with an accessible way to calculate the potential institutional revenue associated with creating a similar debt-forgiveness program on their campus or for their system. The calculator will help institutions build the framework of their own programs and allows them to customize inputs, including the amount of debt forgiven for each student, the cost per credit hour at the institution, and the debt-forgiveness timeline.
"We know that every institution serves a unique population and faces unique challenges. But we also know, from our work with our institutional partners, that they are eager to share opportunities and challenges with each other, to hear lessons learned, and to scale promising practices, said IHEP Vice President of Applied Research, Julie Ajinkya, Ph.D. "We hope that these profiles and tools, including this look at the potential of institutional student debt-forgiveness programs, will inspire institutions across the country to think creatively about new strategies to promote student success, engage and reengage students who are underserved in higher education, and close racial and socioeconomic attainment gaps in their communities."
IHEP’s new series of profiles and interactive tools are part of its work with Lumina Foundation’s Talent Hubs – a group of 24 cross-sector partnerships from communities across the country who are working together to close equity gaps and promote increased attainment.
“Wayne State’s Warrior Way Back program is a simple yet transformative practice that underscores Detroit’s status as a national exemplar,” said Dakota Pawlicki, Lumina Foundation’s strategy officer for community mobilization. "Too many student success efforts attempt to make students stronger so they can survive a system that is unwilling to change. Wayne State, along with its partners in the Detroit Talent Hub, is breaking this norm by taking bold action – focusing on fixing the system rather than the student.”
This work builds on IHEP's long history of partnering with institutions to identify and scale best practices to promote student success and boost degree attainment. As part of their national completion initiative, Degrees When Due, IHEP is working with institutions in eight states to reengage students with some college experience, but no earned degree through a strategy called degree reclamation. In 2015, IHEP produced a series of tactical guidebooks to help scale best practices within the Community Partnership for Attainment (CPA) network.