Getting adults who have taken some college classes back on campuses isn’t easy – even if some financial hurdles are removed, a new report shows. 

Researchers at the education non-profit Ithaka S+R recently released an analysis of the pilot year of an initiative called the Ohio College Comeback Compact, which aims to get adults with some higher education back in the classroom. 

The compact is for people labeled “some college, no credential.” It’s a growing population here in the Buckeye State as well as nationwide. An estimated 1.26 million Ohio residents fall into that camp. 

And despite lots of work from local colleges and universities and others on this front, change is coming slowly, if at all. In its first year, about 9,110 people were eligible to take part in the Compact. Yet only 156 of them – fewer than 2% – did, according to the analysis.

James Dean Ward, one of the report’s authors at Ithaka, acknowledged that’s a small number, yet he remains hopeful about the compact’s future. 

“As the program becomes more well-known amongst the community, as it grows, as we iron out all the details that get ironed out during a pilot program, I think its success is likely to just increase,” he told Signal Cleveland. 

How the compact works 

Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, Kent State University and the University of Akron are among the eight public colleges across Northeast Ohio collaborating on this effort.  

Here’s how the compact works. Eligible participants must owe money – say, unpaid tuition or fees – directly to one of those compact institutions that they attended. The owed money is separate from student loan debt, which is not paid off by the compact. 

Students also must have been in good academic standing before they dropped out. Plus, their institutional debt must sit at the state attorney general’s office. Current Ohio law tells public institutions to do that. 

Once all of the necessary boxes are checked, students can return to the college they started at or to another one of the institutions. The compact will wipe away up to $5,000 of their institutional debt. Then the institutions will release students’ transcripts, allowing them to re-enroll.  

It’s not just a win for these participants, either. Colleges get a potential new enrollment pool. Local and state economies may get a more educated workforce if and when students ultimately graduate. 

Ithaka S+R also serves as the compact’s coordinator. The Joyce Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Lumina Foundation provide financial support. 

Most compact participants are women, owe $1,500 on average

This report echoes what preliminary data showed last year. But these latest findings share some new information on who actually participated in the compact during its 2021-22 pilot year. 

The average participant is 33 years old, has been out of a college classroom for four years and owes about $1,500 to an institution. Most owed that money to a two-year public college. The bulk of students returned to the institutions where they started. 

Nearly 70% of participants are female. The overwhelming majority of participants are eligible for the Pell Grant. That’s federal funding earmarked for those facing the biggest financial need.

Students of color, researchers noted, are “disproportionately likely to owe an institutional debt as well as participate in the compact.” But there were no notable differences in short-term success rates between racial/ethnic groups, according to the report.

“When we’re thinking about trying to advance equity goals in higher ed, if we’re for getting more students from historically underserved groups back into school by lowering this barrier, we’re creating more opportunities for them,” Ithaka’s Ward said. 

Seven students earned a degree or credential in the compact’s first year. This shows how close a student can be to a degree before something – in this case, those relatively small institutional debts – derails them before graduation. 

“As soon as that barrier fell, they were able to re-enroll and complete [their degree or credential],” he said. 

Compact could offer more wraparound services  

The compact’s pilot year reached relatively few people given the vast amount of coordination and work between the institutions. 

Just waiving those institutional debts is “not a silver bullet by any means,” said Ward. Adult students face a variety of unique challenges – like working and parenting – that can keep them from returning to a classroom. This same group is often more likely to face food and/or housing insecurities, too. 

“It’s really important that we’re meeting students’ needs where they are and that we’re thinking holistically about it,” he added. 

The report suggests having more accessible wraparound services could help. For example, institutions should coordinate offices and services to make it easier for students or potential participants to access the help they need more easily. Another approach that could help would be offering flexible class schedules.

Ward added an additional idea: Perhaps participants could take fewer credits at a time to more slowly reacclimate themselves to college life. 

“A lot of these students have been stopped out for a while, so they may not be in the mindset of being a student again,” he said.  “They’ve kind of moved past that stage in life.” 

Officials at the compact’s eight public college partners are already boosting their outreach efforts as the program continues, according to Ward. They also encourage continued evaluation of the compact going forward. 

See if you’re eligible to participate in the Ohio College Comeback Compact by visiting its website:

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