Successfully addressing student debt, transcript holds, and re-enrollment for adult learners often requires cross-organizational partnerships. The Ohio College Comeback Compact is doing exactly that in northeast Ohio. A regional collaborative of eight public colleges and universities, the Ohio Department of Higher Education, Ithaka S+R, and College Now Greater Cleveland, the Ohio Compact is an innovative program allowing students to return to one of the participating institutions despite owing institutional debt that likely resulted in a transcript hold. As students make progress towards their degree or certificate, they are eligible to receive up to $5,000 in debt forgiveness plus the release of their transcript.

Since launching in August 2022, the Ohio Compact institutions have directly reached out to more than 8,000 eligible students, and hundreds of those students have met with advisors to discuss re-enrollment. Over 900 individuals logged their interest through the Compact website. At least 60 students have already committed to return to college, and many more are anticipated to re-enroll for spring 2023. In large part, the success of the Ohio Compact is due to high-quality partnerships across the state.

Collaboration with the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) has been crucial to enabling the Compact’s work with two- and four-year public higher education institutions. As a staunch supporter of our efforts to pilot the program, ODHE helped lay the groundwork with their college comeback guidance, support for individual institutions’ college comeback efforts, and historical knowledge of the state’s college comeback programming and policies. ODHE’s encouragement helped align leadership on expectations and establish the Ohio Compact model. With this guidance, the Compact’s institutions have been able to define the steps students must take to qualify for debt forgiveness, protect student data, and develop an innovative cross-institutional payment structure.

Partnering with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office made it possible to operationalize the pilot. In Ohio, institutional debt is certified with the Attorney General. Working together, we were able to identify former students’ institutional debt amounts, special counsel status, and bankruptcy history to determine whether they were eligible for participation in the Ohio Compact.

Collaborating with the eight higher education institutions to co-develop the Ohio Compact required alignment from many campus leaders across functions. From college presidents to CFOs to general counsels, partners worked together to draft a single Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlined the Compact terms and participation agreements. Successful partnerships need to go beyond senior leadership, so identifying four additional institutional liaisons—a main contact, data contact, outreach contact, and communications contact—ensured that eligibility lists, Compact promotion, website development, targeted outreach to eligible students, and student-centered advising were aligned across all eight institutions. In addition, half of the Ohio Compact institutions had a college comeback policy in place before joining. The planning group benefited from modeling the program after two ongoing debt forgiveness programs at Lorain County Community College and Cleveland State University.

Three months into the program pilot, it is clear how community-based organizations complement the work of ODHE and the eight colleges and universities. College Now Greater Cleveland and Learn to Earn Dayton provided regional knowledge and a launching pad for forming strong relationships with institutional partners from the onset. Furthermore, College Now Greater Cleveland is contributing to the Ohio Compact’s outreach and advising capabilities by reinforcing the institutions’ outreach efforts and providing additional financial and college access guidance to prospective students.

An ambitious cross-institutional collaboration is only as good as its partners. Everyone involved in the Ohio Compact contributed expertise, exhibited patience, and was willing to compromise, all in service of increasing access to higher education and better supporting adult learners. At a time when transfer student enrollment is at a decline, collaboration becomes ever more important. We hope the Ohio Compact can be used as a playbook for regional and state collaboration to increase re-enrollment and minimize student debt. Now more than ever, it is prudent to recognize that improving the lives of adult learners goes beyond one’s campus and that getting to know your neighbor may be the key that unlocks the door to student success.