Stranded credits, or academic credits previously earned but inaccessible due to an outstanding debt to an institution, impact an estimated 6.6 million students across the country. Students affected by stranded credits represent nearly one-sixth of the estimated 36 million students who left college with some credit, but no degree, and are more likely to be students of color and from lower-income backgrounds. Recently, the issue of stranded credits has garnered national attention as policymakers work to address barriers to increasing postsecondary attainment and rising educational debt.

In May 2022, the US Department of Education issued guidance that allows colleges and universities to use Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF), made available through the American Rescue Plan, to pay off unpaid student balances. As a result, more than 25 colleges and universities across the country have so far announced or enacted efforts to do so. Some prominent examples of these programs include:

While these programs alleviate students’ unpaid debts, some critics are concerned that colleges may be acting in their own self-interest by paying off debts they would have likely never recouped. Any benefits to the institutions’ balance sheets, though, do not diminish the real benefits to students. Pre-pandemic programs, such as Warrior Way Back at Wayne State University and MATC ReStart at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, demonstrate that debt forgiveness programs can help students return to the classroom and complete their credential

Over the next few weeks, Ithaka S+R will collect and analyze data on these new debt forgiveness programs to understand their scope and potential impact. We will explore the characteristics of students impacted by these programs, the variation in program design, the types and amounts of forgiven debts, the types of institutions employing these programs, and the potential impact on student outcomes. To inform future efforts to address student debt and stranded credits, we will publish a running list of these programs alongside these analyses on our website. 

Want to share an example of a debt forgiveness program? Share in the comments below or reach out to Pooja Vora (