Across the US, the number of individuals who started college but stopped out before attaining a degree has continued to grow. Research shows that earning an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or a targeted credential has wide-ranging benefits, from increased lifetime earnings to improved health outcomes. Postsecondary institutions and regional economies also benefit when students re-enroll and complete programs. Returning students face unique challenges to re-enrollment and completion, and this is especially true for students with past-due balances at their former institution. Many of these students are unable to re-enroll at their original institution or access their transcripts to transfer elsewhere due to registration and transcript holds.

To address this, institutions have implemented comeback programs that offer debt relief, states have banned transcript withholding for past-due balances, and the Department of Education recently issued new rules limiting the use of transcript holds. The Ohio College Comeback Compact (“Ohio Compact” or “Compact”), now in its second year, contributes to these efforts in a novel way by taking a regional approach to re-enrollment that enables stopped-out adult learners to return to any of eight participating institutions and receive up to $5,000 in institutional debt resolution after completing two terms or graduating.

Ithaka S+R facilitated the implementation of the Compact and conducted a simultaneous evaluation soon after the Compact’s launch, aiming to understand its effectiveness, inform the ongoing implementation, and provide guidance for future programs. This swift feedback loop enabled the implementation team to adapt the program for better student service. Findings from each stage of the evaluation shaped the next; themes from student interviews informed questions posed to administrators in focus groups, and administrative data analysis helped refine student interview questions. Additionally, survey findings guided evaluation efforts, allowing us to prioritize the needs of overrepresented populations (e.g., caregivers) and address specific topics identified by respondents. In this way, we sought to take a pragmatic approach to our research that would position us well to provide actionable insights to the implementation team.

We are excited to share key findings from our pilot year evaluation efforts. View complete findings in the quantitative report and qualitative report.

Key Findings

Quantitative Evaluation

  • 156 eligible students enrolled during the pilot year. At six percent of eligible students, this was nearly triple the return rate for all some college, no credential students across the country in 2021-22, and it was 1.5 times the return rate of former students with stranded credits at the participating schools who were not eligible for the Compact.
  • Sixty-six percent of the 156 students who enrolled received debt forgiveness and another 27 percent completed part of the requirements to receive forgiveness.
  • Three students earned a degree during the pilot, highlighting the immediate impact of the Compact on stopped-out students.
  • Students from historically underrepresented groups are more likely to have an unpaid balance and are more likely to participate in the Compact. These students have similar levels of success, suggesting that the Compact, and potentially other debt forgiveness programs, are a useful tool to advance equity goals and re-engage stopped out learners from a broad set of demographic groups.

Qualitative Evaluation

  • Although re-enrollment through the Compact successfully lowered the barrier related to institutional debts, students reported still struggling with overall costs, balancing work schedules, and managing family obligations.
  • There was a need for more intrusive advising and assistance during the re-enrollment process, but many students felt well supported, which is reflected in the 93 percent of participants who made at least some progress towards debt forgiveness.
  • Both students and administrators found the program to be a motivator for re-enrollment and a potential stepping stone towards a brighter educational and economic future.

Evaluation for Improvement

The parallel efforts of a robust evaluation alongside program implementation were instrumental in guiding the implementation team and informing real-time adjustments to processes and practices, responding to the needs of participants and supporting outcome optimization. By identifying and surfacing both positive experiences and opportunities for improvement, the evaluation efforts equipped the implementation team with the data necessary to iterate continuously and refine Compact strategies and mechanisms in responsive and proactive ways. As the Compact navigates its second year and looks ahead to its third, this process of iterative refinement continues to be informed by the pilot year evaluation findings and the strategies used throughout that process. Completing evaluation and implementation processes in parallel laid a foundation of evidence-based decision making, and promises to be sustained in the coming years of the Compact.