About 9,000 people in Northeast Ohio are eligible to return to public colleges as part of the Ohio College Comeback Compact. But in the program’s pilot year, only about 150 – roughly 2% — actually did. 

For those who came back, the choice could offer a chance to change career trajectories. But the program produced a relatively small yield for years of work and collaboration between Northeast Ohio’s eight public higher education institutions and the big power players in college access that worked to create the innovative program. 

The efforts reinforced what officials already knew: people with “some college, no degree” are a hard group to re-engage. 

“Some folks have moved on,” said Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success at Cleveland State University. “Maybe their dreams or their aspirations have changed away from completing their degree, so they engage at a low rate.” 

Getting more people enrolled matters for lots of reasons. One of the biggest is that more people with degrees or credentials would enjoy higher individual incomes and boost the overall economic health of the region. Plus, these people could give the area’s colleges another pool of students to potentially enroll after years of enrollment declines that were then amplified by the pandemic. 

The numbers come from preliminary data from nonprofit consulting group Ithaka S+R, which is facilitating this work along with College Now Greater Cleveland and the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The Lumina Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Joyce Foundation are providing support, too. 

Here’s how the Compact works. Participants must owe some money – say, unpaid tuition or fees – directly to one of the eight participating institutions. Other criteria include being in good academic standing when they dropped out. 

Once all of the necessary boxes are checked, students can return to the college they started at or to one of the institutions in the Compact. Up to $5,000 of that institutional debt will be wiped away, and students’ transcripts will be released. 

Ultimately, at Cleveland State, 12 people returned for the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters. Ithaka S+R is looking at the year as a whole to gauge progress. 

One of those returning to CSU is Josie Mayle. She first enrolled at the university in fall 2021. There was a mixup with the housing department, the 19-year-old said, and charges hit her account late that semester. It resulted in a hold on her account. She couldn’t register for spring classes. 

Mayle got a runaround when she reached out to the university, she said. She felt like she didn’t get much help. The university eventually turned her debt over to the attorney general for collection. (Current Ohio law tells public institutions to do that.) Mayle got a job at a UPS store to repay the money. 

It was a tough time. So when the university emailed her about the Compact, she felt both hopeful and skeptical. 

“I didn’t know how well I could trust their words, like, ‘Hey, we’re here to help you get back in’ because I was like, ‘Well, when I was struggling then, you guys weren’t a really big help, so how do I know I can rely on you guys when you let me down the first time?’” she said. 

She said she didn’t receive help to decide what institution to go to, but was pretty set on going back to CSU anyways. She’s happy there now, especially since the debt she repaid to the state attorney general got reimbursed via the Compact. 

But she’s still left wanting more support, she said. She’s still waiting to hear about a scholarship renewal request.  And in an ideal world, she said, she’d like to be able to connect with the bursar’s office instead of the university’s centralized student support center.     

Like Mayle, all of Cleveland State’s Compact participants had been enrolled there before, too. That’s not the case at Lorain County Community College, according to Marisa Vernon White, the college’s vice president of enrollment management and student services. She said the dozen students who re-enrolled there came from a mix of institutions. 

In fact, working with other colleges is a highlight for Vernon White. She doesn’t look at it as collaborating with competitors, she said. 

“It’s more of a collective impact approach on how we can help move the needle on individuals and families coming back to higher education and work together towards that goal,” she said. 

That work is continuing. Cleveland City Council recently approved $300,000 for  marketing the Compact as well as another debt-forgiveness program. 

Plus, members of the compact are moving to the evaluation phase. That includes working to gather other data points, like participants’ GPAs and the number of credits earned, to better help track long-term outcomes.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

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