I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. We’re making some changes in The Edge. I’ll continue to report, write, and produce this newsletter, but some weeks, it will lead off with contributions from my colleagues. This week, you’ve got me.

A model emerges for helping indebted students reclaim their “stranded credits.”

I’ve railed often in this newsletter (and elsewhere) about a Catch-22 that keeps returning students from re-enrolling: Their transcripts get withheld over debts they owe to their original colleges. An experiment involving eight public institutions in Northeast Ohio, being announced today in this blog post, aims to tackle that conundrum. It’s too soon to declare victory, but from what’s been shared with me so far, this new compact offers some of the best hope yet.

The model was developed under the auspices of the nonprofit consultancy Ithaka S+R and involves four community colleges and four state universities, all of which have agreed to three core actions. They will settle debts and release transcripts to any former student enrolling at their own or any of the other institutions; collaborate with Ithaka and community-based organizations to conduct outreach and counseling to prospective students to help them choose the academic program — and institution — that is best for them; and develop a system to periodically reimburse one another a portion of the waived debt based on who re-enrolls where (more below on how these transactions might work.).

Ithaka’s blog post covers the essentials. Yet a few additional things really struck me.

Financially, agreeing to debt forgiveness to encourage re-enrollment is a no-brainer. Colleges rarely collect much of the money they’re owed. They average about 7 cents on the dollar when they send debts out for collection, according to Ithaka S+R. Institutions participating in the Ohio compact have the chance to recoup more than that. The final terms have yet to be set for what the institutions will pay when one enrolls a former student from another, but it’s likely to be at least 10 cents on the dollar. And if students re-enroll where they first attended, the payoff is a lot greater. In fact, Cleveland State University, part of the new compact, found that when it began offering to forgive up to $5,000 in institutional debt in the fall of 2019, under its Project Restart, it ultimately collected four times more in tuition than what it forgave in debt.

Cooperation like this might have particular appeal in regions facing challenging enrollment trends. Ithaka S+R started in Northeast Ohio because some colleges there had existing debt-forgiveness programs for returning students (like compact-member Lorain County Community College’s Commodore Comeback). “They already get that logic,” said Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational-transformation program at Ithaka, and now can help extend it. The eight participating institutions are all within a 90-minutes drive, but they share more than proximity. They all could benefit from a program that might entice more older students to enroll. As David Jewell, Cleveland State’s chief financial officer, told me this week, in that region and the state as a whole, “the high-school demographics are not in our favor.”

Institutions need to accept that it may be better for students — and the greater good — if students re-enroll elsewhere. I raised this with Marisa Vernon White, vice-president for enrollment management and student services at Lorain. “That is OK,” she told me. What’s really important, she said, is that students land at an institution that suits their needs, and “the larger collective impact” of helping adults further their education. Without that, she said, economic development, social mobility, and recovery from the pandemic are all at risk. As Jewell pithily put it, participants need to “leave our egos at the door.”

Forgiving debts aside, the real value of this experiment may be in how institutions learn — and share — the best approaches for re-enrolling students with “some college, no degree.” Nationally, about 36 million people fall into that category. As part of the compact, institutions will be working with College Now Greater Cleveland (an organization that taught me a lot when I was researching “The Adult Student” report a few years ago) to ensure students are getting unbiased advice on whether, when, and where to enroll. But as Kurzweil noted, “it’s not just about getting them in the door.” Compact members will also collaborate on how to give students the sustained support they need to complete their degrees. White, for one, said she was pleased to see different institutions already comparing notes on what constitutes a ”holistic” intake process for new students.

With outreach and accounting, the details make a difference. Questions still to be worked out include how colleges will prioritize which of the 60,000 students in the region with “stranded credits” get contacted first, what minimum criteria (like GPAs or regular advising sessions) the institutions might set for students to participate, and most notably, what to call this new thing. (Got ideas? Send them to me, and I’ll pass them along.) Outreach and marketing matter a lot. Otherwise, programs like this can’t fulfill their potential. To wit: For all the financial payoff of Cleveland State’s program, it attracted just 18 students in its first semester, before it was derailed by the pandemic.

Compact members also need to figure out how to pay one another.Initially, Ithaka S+R or some other entity will help track which students enrolled where, and then colleges will pay the agreed-upon fraction of the debt those students originally owed. But should the idea catch on, and maybe expand, that’s not a sustainable solution. Eventually, I could see an independent entity keeping a ledger. But first, let’s see how this project fares. It is funded with $595,000 from three foundations through the spring of 2023.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll indulge me with a personal reflection. Ithaka S+R began studying the challenge of transcript holds — and later popularized the term “stranded credits” — after the head of the consultancy and the former head of the Graduate! Network started brainstorming on the topic during a session I led at SXSW EDU in 2018. I know the compact is still a work in progress, but nearly three years later, it’s gratifying to see something so concrete come to fruition.

What the nation’s top higher-ed policy maker has to say.

In one of his first press interviews, James Kvaal, the new under secretary of education, offered some hints on the direction the federal government might take on key higher-education issues. Kvaal spoke last month with my colleague Eric Kelderman, as part of our Chronicle Festival. These five topics stood out to me:

1. Free community college at the federal level didn’t make it into the surviving Build Back Better proposal, but the Education Department hasn’t given up on the idea. The program could still emerge, albeit on a smaller scale, through some departmental initiatives, said Kvaal, who added that figuring out “what it would take to get Congress on board is an option, too.”

2. The idea of broadly canceling some level of student debt, under the executive authority of the president, isn’t off the table either. Kvaal said department officials continue to deliberate with the White House and the Justice Department “on what kind of authority we may or may not have.”

3. For all the controversy over the “gainful employment” regulation — first instituted during the Obama era and then withdrawn by Betsy DeVos under Trump — Kvaal said it did a lot of good. It prompted some colleges to lower tuition, add scholarships, offer free orientation programs, and shorten programs, he noted, and to shutter some programs altogether because they were too costly relative to the debt students incurred to complete them. On Friday, the department announced that gainful employment would be part of its next round of negotiated rule-making set to begin in January. Already, advocacy groups and others have been weighing in with ideas for new approaches to accountability, as with this from the organization Kvaal used to head and this from another group of policy watchers.

4. Existing loan-forgiveness programs aren’t really working. Kvaal said it was “just outrageous” that so many disabled borrowers who should automatically qualify for loan forgiveness haven’t received it, and that the programs designed to forgive debts for people working in public-service careers are “extremely challenging to navigate,” not least because of inaccurate information given to borrowers.

5. With resentment toward higher education continuing to rise among certain populations, Kvaal said it was important not to ignore the underlying feelings that drive it. Colleges need to be “reliably delivering” on the promise that enrolling is worth the time and the money. And in some rural locales, he said, “higher education has developed a reputation of taking a certain percentage of young people away — and they don’t return.” Colleges need to ensure that the benefits of higher education reach all parts of the country, he added, in the form of economic development and in “helping people understand each other across different perspectives.”

You can watch the whole 27-minute interview — and any or all of the other 12 #ChronFest sessions — by registering here. All three days of the festival can be viewed free, including my interactive session with the director of Stanford’s d. School, where, as promised, I shared what it was like trying out one of those design-thinking exercises designed to spark innovation.

Recommended reading.

Here are some education-related stories from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • The annual Forbes “30 Under 30” lists are out. This year’s list for education, designed to highlight young adults “bringing access and opportunity to the classroom and beyond,” included founders of start-ups, nonprofits, and an adjunct professor who was first elected as a county legislator at the age of 23.
  • Chinese intelligence officers are monitoring campuses across the United States with online surveillance and an array of informants motivated by money, ambition, fear, or authentic patriotism, ProPublica reported. Citing information from U.S. national-security officials, academics, dissidents and other experts, the nonprofit news site found that “as the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping reaches across borders to control its citizens wherever they are, its assaults on academic freedom have intensified.”
  • With Native American students making up less than 1 percent of the undergraduate population, many researchers tend to overlook or erase their data due to statistical limitations. Writing in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Jameson David (JD) Lopez, a University of Arizona assistant professor, argued that “researchers who overlook Indigenous peoples’ data don’t understand what they’re missing — or who might suffer from being forgotten.”

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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