Bringing students back through debt forgiveness

By Matthew Dembicki

New programs at community colleges give former students an incentive to return and finish their degree.

While a growing number of community colleges are offering free tuition mainly to recent high school graduates who qualify, an increasing number of colleges are also looking at ways to bring back former students who didn’t complete a credential. One way they are doing this is by erasing their debt with the college if they meet certain requirements.

Ohio’s Clark State Community College is the latest two-year college to do so, announcing it will launch its program, called The New Beginning, this fall after testing it as a pilot this spring. Candidates include former students who are within two terms of completing their program of study, hold a GPA of 2.0 or higher, are in good academic and conduct standing and have an outstanding tuition balance.

“It’s a great opportunity to assist these students to get to their goal,” said Ronald Gordon, dean of enrollment services at Clark State, who noted that life events occur that may prevent students from completing a credential, such as a certificate or degree.

Clark State tested the program for the spring semester, contacting former students who met the criteria. The college again will locate former students who may be eligible, and it is accepting queries as well.

Talking with others

For its test run in the spring, Clark State reached out to 35 potentially eligible former students and heard back from a handful of them. Two were deemed eligible: One completed by the end of the semester and the other will complete by the beginning of the fall semester.

Clark State had mulled the idea for a while and reached out to other colleges that have similar programs, including Ohio’s Lorain County Community College, Gordon said. He also met with college officials at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual conference in April to find out details about their efforts.

Based on those conversations, Gordon hopes that 10 percent of the estimated 500 potentially eligible students it plans to invite will participate in the program.

For colleges considering a similar program, Gordon offers this advice: Collaborate closely with all departments on campus, especially accounts payable and receivable. It’s also important to test the program to uncover potential issues that were not anticipated during planning. In addition, students must understand exactly how the program works and what their responsibilities are.

A similar approach

Muskegon Community College (MCC) in Michigan is among colleges with a similar program. MCC students, who have financial holds up to $1,200 with the college and who have not been enrolled at MCC for three academic years, can re-enroll under the MCC Debt Forgiveness Program. Students must also have and maintain a 2.0 GPA and commit to ongoing support services designed to help them achieve their academic goals.

Approved students must have a completed federal student aid application on file and show a means to cover current charges. They also are required to participate in a wide range of support services. Students who agree to and fulfill the terms will have their past due balance reduced incrementally over three semesters.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Matthew Dembicki

edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.