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Northeast Ohio colleges aim to tackle ‘stranded credits’ in a bid to reenroll students

Dive Brief:

  • A new partnership among eight public Ohio colleges aims to help students regain access to what experts call stranded credits — credits they’ve earned but can’t use because institutions they attended won’t release their transcripts, often because of unpaid bills.
  • The participating colleges are all located in Northeast Ohio: Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University, Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College, Stark State College, the University of Akron and Youngstown State University. They are attempting to bring students back to the classroom by settling debts students were unlikely to pay. The pilot is funded with grants from the Lumina, Kresge and Joyce foundations totaling $595,000 through spring 2023.
  • Beginning this spring, the colleges, local community groups and Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit coordinating the partnership, will begin outreach to eligible students and develop personalized reenrollment plans. Students may be back in class as early as fall 2022.

Dive Insight:

The eight public colleges agreed to settle institutional debts and release transcripts to one another. Former students can reenroll at their original colleges or any other participating institutions. 

The program will benefit all stakeholders, said Martin Kurzweil, program director for educational transformation at Ithaka S+R.

“We’re in an incredibly tight labor market that is, at least partly, related to the skills gap,” he said. “Creating the opportunity for more former learners, especially adults, to get back on the path for accredited skills, that helps individuals, and that helps the economy.”

Former community college students with stranded credits owe an average of $631, according to Ithaka S+R. Former research university students owe $4,400 on average. Colleges can hold student transcripts as collateral for an unpaid balance.

The exact financial arrangements under which the Northeast Ohio colleges will forgive debts incurred at their partner institutions hasn’t been finalized. Two of the participating institutions, Cleveland State and Lorain County Community College, already have forgiveness programs and indicated they generate revenue.

Forgiving this kind of debt isn’t necessarily a huge loss for colleges because they are unlikely to collect on it anyway, said David Jewell, Cleveland State University chief financial officer. 

“The assumption that institutions are collecting anything meaningful from this debt is a fallacy,” Jewell said. “The revenue a school takes in from a reenrolled student is far greater than the debt owed in most cases.”

Ohio colleges typically collect just seven cents on every dollar of institutional debt, according to research from Policy Matters Ohio.

Jewell also isn’t worried about losing stopped-out students to other local colleges.

“Maybe there’s a former Cleveland State student who is a couple of classes shy from qualifying for an associate’s degree at Lorain. That might make more sense for them,” Jewell said. “We’re institutionally agnostic and believe in Ohio first.”

Stopped-out adult students across the country who return to class tend to enroll at a different institution but stay in the same state, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Kurzweil said Ohio is an attractive area for the pilot because its educational system values collaboration.

“Ohio was motivated and ready to move quickly and had a lot of the groundwork already laid,” Kurzweil said. The state issued guidance directly permitting institutions to create individual forgiveness programs for returning students and to form agreements among colleges. The new program’s participating colleges already have significant transfer pipelines among each other and have a history of collaboration. 

One key point still being discussed is who is eligible. Kurzweil said the colleges are determining which former students would qualify for the debt forgiveness. An estimated 222,000 individuals in Ohio have stranded credits, and 60,000 of them are in the northeast region of the state, according to Ithaka S+R. Should the pilot go well, Kurzweil is optimistic other regions of the country could implement similar arrangements.

“We’ve had conversations with four or five other states who just weren’t at the same stage of readiness,” Kurzweil said. “When they’re in the right place, I think there could be a very rapid replication of the program.”


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