In August 2022, the Ohio College Comeback Compact (“Ohio Compact” or “Compact”) was launched to offer a pathway to re-enrollment for stopped-out college students with stranded credits in the Northeast Ohio region. The Compact allows stopped-out students to return to any of the eight participating public colleges and universities despite owing institutional debt and having their transcript withheld. Through the Compact, students are eligible to receive up to $5,000 in debt forgiveness and a release of their transcript after completing two terms or upon graduation.

With support from Lumina Foundation and as part of Ithaka S+R’s research and evaluation work to understand the efficacy of the Ohio Compact, Ithaka S+R surveyed students in Northeast Ohio who had stranded credits at participating institutions. The survey illuminates the obstacles facing some-college no-degree students with institutional debts, their current life circumstances, and how they ended up with stranded credits. You can read the full report findings and discussion here.

Key Findings

For stopped-out students, returning to higher education can introduce multiple hurdles, making it difficult to re-enroll, stay enrolled, and graduate. When the added burden of institutional debt is presented, returning can become an insurmountable task. Our key findings include:

  • Students who have stranded credits are more likely to be Black, female, and Pell recipients and over the age of 26. Over 50 percent of survey respondents earn below $30,000, over two-thirds of respondents have multiple caregiving responsibilities, and 66 percent are employed. Additionally, many respondents face basic needs insecurity, such as food and housing, that adds to the stressors of everyday responsibilities.
  • Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents report that financial challenges forced them to stop out and 39 percent state family obligations as the cause. About a quarter of respondents point to various other challenges, such as mental health, COVID-19, or a lack of motivation, as reasons for leaving college.
  • Eighty-four percent of respondents state that their institutional debt stems from financial causes such as leaving the institution midway through the term or accruing unexpected financial costs that inhibit them from paying tuition. For 28 percent of survey respondents, personal obligations are the cause of stopping out.
  • Almost all respondents report academic support and financial support as critical to their success in obtaining a degree. Seventy-seven percent also indicate social supports as crucial to their re-enrollment journey.

Looking Ahead

Navigating parenting, basic needs insecurity, mental health challenges, employment obligations, and an academic course load can have compounding effects, negatively impacting students’ trajectory and influencing their decision to return. Thus, offering institutional supports like childcare, food pantries, emergency aid, transportation assistance, or flexibility in course modality and availability can make a difference not only in students’ decision to re-enroll, but also in their decision to persist and complete their degree. Moreover, supporting students with comprehensive assistance has spillover effects, improving retention, persistence, and completion rates and contributing to institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. For states, educating more members of society means meeting postsecondary attainment goals and receiving a direct return on investment.

To address the realities facing stopped-out students nationwide, institutional support for re-enrollment needs to be specific, well-designed, and intentional. As evidenced in our survey report, stopped-out learners face an array of challenges and have multiple responsibilities beyond academic obligations. To encourage their re-enrollment, it is necessary for institutions to offer comprehensive wraparound support that can alleviate the additional burden they carry as they contemplate their educational journey.

Next year, we aim to publish our complete mixed methods evaluation findings of the pilot year of the Compact. This report will include analysis from interviews with students and Compact partners, as well as quantitative analyses exploring student characteristics and associated factors that make these students more likely to re-enroll.