Rami Daud / Kent State University

The name of the initiative is long. But, at the core, the goal of the Ohio College Comeback Compact is simple: to get more Northeast Ohioans to return to college.

All public four-year and two-year higher education institutions across the region — that’s 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 — are participating.

After plans for the compact were first announced in late 2021, it’s primed to enter its next chapter.

The group is targeting a specific group of people who stopped out of college and whose transcripts are being withheld over outstanding institutional debts. Think things like unpaid tuition and/or fees owed directly to the college, not student loans.

This means those students can’t take classes at their home institutions or transfer to another college until those debts are settled. The credits for classes they’ve already earned are effectively “stranded.” It’s estimated about 6.6 million people nationwide fall into this category.

Those at community colleges, which enroll higher populations of students of color as well as older and/or first-generation students compared with four-year institutions, are disproportionately affected, according to a 2020 report from Policy Matters Ohio.

The compact is zeroing in on about 15,000 eligible people in Northeast Ohio who previously went to one of the eight participating institutions and didn’t finish their degrees, according to a new report out this week from Ithaka S+R.

The nonprofit organization is guiding the compact’s work, along with a community-based partner in College Now Greater Cleveland as well as the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Foundation funding is offering financial support.

There’s a new website where those eligible can flag themselves to get the ball rolling. Colleges, too, will begin outreach efforts to former — and, officials hope, soon-to-be current — students this month.

Before, when colleges would try to reconnect, conversations could basically be summed up in a line: “Hey. Come back.”

That’s according to Heidi Nicholas, executive director of enrollment management and operations at Tri-C. But those chats can now take a different shape for this population.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, you can come back now, because we have a solution for you to pay off your college debt,’” said Nicholas.

Here’s that solution. Participating institutions will wipe away up to $5,000 of institutional debt once various requirements are met. For places like Tri-C, that will take care of the vast majority of students’ outstanding amounts. The average balance is estimated to be about $1,000, most often for unpaid tuition.

Plus, their transcript will be released, allowing students to either return to the college where they started or enroll at another participating institution. Students will also get more in-depth advising from College Now and the institutions to help them create a re-enrollment plan. Meeting with an advisor twice on campus once enrolled is one of the requirements for being involved, too.

The arrangement calls for cross-institutional payments if a student goes to another school. That’s important. Enrollment has dipped at colleges both nationwide and locally, with the COVID-19 pandemic already amplifying existing struggles on that front. Fewer students, of course, means a decrease in incoming tuition.

“The pandemic has siloed them,” Maggie McGrath, executive director of the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland, said about local colleges. “It’s been about survival and how we get through it. I think they felt that way throughout the pandemic and somewhat still, honestly.”

So now, even though institutions are working with their competitors, McGrath said coming together on this initiative is helping to foster a spirit of collaboration among them. After all, they remain focused on the same end goal of getting students to finish their degrees, which in turn can help the region.

“Ohio companies need educated workers, and that need is growing with the unprecedented number of multinational companies moving to our state,” Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said in Ithaka’s release. “The goal of the Ohio College Comeback Compact is to encourage adults to return to college to finish degrees so they can advance their careers in our growing economy.”

As for metrics, officials with the compact believe the effort will be deemed successful “if it helps Ohioans return to college, earn their degrees or certificates, and reduce or eliminate the money they owe their former schools,” they wrote online, adding they’ll be “closely” monitoring outcomes.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.