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Why Wayne State is Forgiving Debt to Reengage Stop-Out Students

By Keith Whitfield and Dawn Medley

As leaders in higher education, we sometimes talk about promoting opportunities when we should discuss eliminating obstacles. Many of us look to our faculty and staff to expand their reach and influence while we experience tighter budgets and our students see declining opportunities for financial support.

Fostering creative problem-solving and student-motivated solutions will become the hallmark of higher education gains and success in the coming years. We must create collaborations across the educational landscape and engage with industry, community, and philanthropic foundations. Too often, we believe that the problem rests with student preparation, lack of funding, or even classroom disengagement.

Policy leaders are exploring expanded Pell Grant funding, new evaluations of SAP (Satisfactory Academic Progress) and even revised FAFSA questions (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to open the doors for more students to access higher education. At some point, each institution must look at its own processes and policies to ensure that they are not contributing to the barriers that students encounter.

Wayne State University is attempting to unlock the door for students who have been kept out of higher education when they owe small past due balances. Wayne State University, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and Macomb Community College worked together to receive a Lumina Talent Hub Designation and create the Warrior Way Back Program, which is a cornerstone of our current institutional efforts. The Warrior Way Back is a way for students to “learn their way” back into the higher education ecosystem.

We know that it takes a lot to bring a student back to school. Therefore, we’re forgiving debt that is more than two years old. It’s not a lot of money — no more than $1,500 to start — but current term financial aid can’t pay a past due balance, so it might as well be $15,000 for some of our students, as over 50 percent of them are Pell-eligible.

If a student is eligible, we provide deep relational support. We will work with them on aid eligibility, degree counseling, budgeting, tutoring, financial literacy, and learning difference support — all services that we’ve expanded for our current students, and which former students can leverage for their success.

Here is how Warrior Way Back works: For each semester a former student is enrolled under the program, we forgive a third of their debt. Once it is forgiven or brought to a point where the student can pay it off, they can take their transcript and either move to another school or stay at Wayne State and graduate. This is far more than just a financial aid tool: It also improves their credit rating while moving them toward degree attainment. Our graduation rates have climbed by over 21 points in the last few years — a rate that may be the best in the nation. We want to demonstrate our renewed commitment to students who fell by the wayside as that number improved.

While we have been busy focusing on student success, graduation rates, expanded advising, emergency grants, housing security, and degree paths for current students, we also wanted to reach out to students who had disengaged with higher education entirely. We are working with our community college partners to allow students to do a reverse transfer and graduate with an associate’s degree along the way. Our ACCESS program has provided over 1,100 freshmen with zero out-of-pocket expenses for their tuition and fees last year — very different than the institution many of these students who left experienced as freshmen.

Detroit has almost 700,000 adults with some college education but no degree. We don’t have enough college-educated adults to support all of the industry needs in Detroit. In a state with declining high school graduates, being creative and engaging with our past students will strengthen our enrollment numbers, benefit the community, and enhance our reputation as a committed and supportive institution of higher learning. It also makes financial sense, as a student attending class contributes tuition revenue.

As we strive for educational access and focus on creating better opportunities for our students, we must meet adult learners where they are, as not everyone has the same level of support or experience. So, while we begin Warrior Way Back on our campus, it is our hope to serve as an example for other institutions to abandon the practice of locking students out of the higher education realm by holding academic records hostage.

Wayne State is here for Detroit. It’s where we’ve always been and we never left. For 150 years, we’ve educated the Motor City’s doctors, lawyers, teachers, and leaders. As we continue to partner with Detroit’s industry and civic leaders, we will support creative campus leaders who are working to provide more Detroiters with the education they need. We understand this city because we live it and we love it — we aren’t going to stop finding innovative ways to play our part in Detroit’s resurgence. Because after all, Detroit didn’t give up, our students don’t give up, and Warriors never quit. Just like Detroit, we are resilient. We are Warrior Strong.
Keith Whitfield is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs and Dawn Medley is associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State University.

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