The Ohio College Comeback Compact successfully concluded its pilot year, demonstrating proof of concept for a novel program aimed at re-enrolling college students with stranded credits and settling the institutional debt they owed their former institutions. The Compact is advancing to a full implementation at the eight original public colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio for the 2023-24 academic year. And, with generous support from Lumina Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, Ithaka S+R will be working over the next two years to adapt and extend the concept in Ohio and other states.

In August 2022, the Ohio College Comeback Compact first started contacting eligible students with a new proposition: come back to any public college in the region, even if you owe money and your transcript is being held because of it. Until this program became available, many of these former students were unable to take college courses anywhere. For students who owed money, often their former college or university held their transcript and prevented them from registering; without an official transcript, many students also could not enroll in other colleges. The Ohio College Comeback Compact provided an opportunity for these students to continue pursuing their education, settle the debt, and free their transcripts.

The Compact’s unique structure has four core features:

  • Compact institutions agree to relax registration and transcript holds for former students with debt who re-enroll in their own or any other participating institution
  • Once students complete qualifying activities, participating colleges and universities settle institutional debts, up to $5,000
  • Throughout the process, institutions and a third-party partner provide proactive outreach and advising to eligible students, centering student success
  • Participating colleges and universities engage in modest revenue share (up to $750) to account for students who enroll somewhere other than their previous institution.

The 2022-23 Pilot

The pilot period covered the 2022-23 academic year and focused on 9,109 former students identified as eligible. Eligible students were at least one academic year removed from their last enrollment in a Compact college or university and had not yet earned a bachelor’s degree, they owed a balance of $5,000 or less to their former institution, their cumulative GPA was at least 2.0, and they were not currently in bankruptcy or subject to collections by an Ohio Attorney General appointed special counsel. Outreach and pre-enrollment advising were managed by the eight institutions and supported by a local non-profit, College Now Greater Cleveland.

Results during the pilot period for student engagement and enrollment, debt resolution, and the return on investment for participating institutions demonstrate the viability of this model.

As described below, results during the pilot period for student engagement and enrollment, debt resolution, and the return on investment for participating institutions demonstrate the viability of this model. The pilot also helped identify areas to improve as we move into full implementation.

The Compact put eligible students with stranded credits on the same footing as other some-college, no-credential students. Of the 9,109 former students identified as eligible for the Compact, 156 or 1.7 percent enrolled during the pilot year. This compares favorably to the 2.1 percent of adults with some college and no credential nationally who enrolled during the 2021-22 academic year. In the absence of the Compact, none of the 9,109 students would have been able to continue their education. The Compact enabled these students to enroll at close to the same rate as the general population of adults with some college and no credential.

Students of color (62 percent) and students who had received a Pell grant (78 percent) were both significantly overrepresented among the eligible students who enrolled.

Compact-eligible students who were more recently separated from their institution and had earned more credits were significantly more likely to enroll. During the pilot year, 4.6 percent of 1,895 Compact-eligible students who were within five years of leaving their institution and had accumulated at least 30 credits enrolled at one of the participating institutions. This compares favorably to the 5.6 percent enrollment rate for (appropriately) touted adult reconnect programs that only target students who separated within five years and earned at least 30 credits, and exclude students with institutional debts and transcript holds.

With limited marketing resources for the pilot year, the Compact had a lower contact rate than benchmark adult reconnect programs, but a higher enrollment-of-contacted rate. With a broad-based, do-it-yourself approach and a lot of effort, Compact advisors made nearly 70,000 outreach attempts using email, text message, phone calls, and mailings, but were often stymied by outdated contact information and limited targeting. Of the 9,109 Compact-eligible students, 9 percent were in contact with advisors at participating institutions, lower than the 30 percent contact rate achieved by a benchmark adult reconnect program focused on recently separated students without institutional debt and holds. On the other hand, the Compact enrolled 19.3 percent of students contacted, slightly better than the 18.6 percent enrollment-of-contacted rate of the benchmark program.

The vast majority of Compact-eligible students who enrolled during the pilot obtained or were on track for debt resolution. Sixty-six percent of the 156 re-enrolled students obtained debt resolution, and 27 percent partially qualified during the pilot year and may obtain debt resolution with additional activities. The eight colleges and universities participating in the Compact canceled $135,000 in nominal debt.

The Compact institutions received more tuition revenue from re-enrolled students than the nominal debt canceled, and much more than the forgone collections. The enrollments made possible by the Compact during the pilot year generated over $200,000 in tuition revenue for participating institutions. This is greater than the nominal $135,000 in debt canceled, but because the institutions actually collect only a fraction of the nominal debt, the positive return on investment is even larger. Ithaka S+R estimates that institutions would have collected only about $20,000 against the $135,000 in nominal balances due. In other words, by foregoing $20,000 in collections the Compact enabled enrollments that generated $200,000 in tuition revenue.

In short, the pilot year of the Ohio College Comeback Compact demonstrated value for students and for institutions. It also demonstrated the potential benefits to the region of removing an important barrier to educational attainment and workforce development. It turned the lose-lose conundrum of stranded credits into a win-win for all participants.

Moving Forward in Ohio…

Based on the successful proof of concept during the pilot year, all eight participating institutions have agreed to continue with full implementation of the Compact in the 2023-24 academic year, with several enhancements informed by the pilot:

  • We will enhance marketing and communications efforts and improve contact rate with the support of an institution-agnostic third-party outreach provider, ReUp Education. There are early signs of significant improvement.
  • We will streamline the data collection process and consolidate data cleaning under Ithaka S+R for consistency and efficiency.
  • We will adjust qualifying activities to better align with demonstrated student behavior and simplify data management on the part of institutions.

As Ithaka S+R continues to facilitate this intervention for a second year, we look forward to working with 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 to remove barriers to re-enrollment and create opportunities for students in Northeast Ohio to complete a degree or certificate.

…and Expanding Beyond Ohio

The three original philanthropic funders of the pilot, Lumina Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the Joyce Foundation, have all renewed their funding commitments to support Ithaka S+R’s work on the Ohio College Comeback Compact.

With an estimated 6.6 million individuals in the US burdened and blocked from continuing their education by these stranded credits, there is a nationwide need for solutions.

In addition, their generous funding will enable Ithaka S+R to adapt this model and help institutions, systems, state agencies, and nonprofits in other states re-engage students with institutional debt, transcript holds, and registration holds. With an estimated 6.6 million individuals in the US burdened and blocked from continuing their education by these stranded credits, there is a nationwide need for solutions, and we are ready to pitch in. In the coming months, we will announce several emerging efforts.

If you would like to collaborate with Ithaka S+R to address stranded credits through funding this work, receiving technical assistance, or implementing a program similar to the Ohio Compact, please contact Liz Looker, Senior Program Manager, at