This means many Americans are accruing the debt that comes with attending college but aren’t receiving the benefit of a full education and a degree.
That’s a problem that Wayne State University in Michigan is working to tackle with its Warrior Way Back initiative. Founded in 2018, the program provides both some amount of debt forgiveness and counseling to students who attended the school but dropped out so that they can return and finish their degrees.
When the program began, the amount forgiven was $1,500. Earlier this year, the university upped it to $4,000. To put that into perspective, current tuition and fees for a school year at the school is estimated to be just north of $14,000 for in-state students. Out of state students pay more than $30,000.
It started after Wright State realized how many students dropped out because of their debt, said Ahmad Ezzedine, the vice president for Academic Student Affairs and Global Engagement at the school who helped implement the program.
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“When we started looking at the numbers, it was very obvious that there was an opportunity there,” for debt forgiveness, Ezzedine said.
Wayne State is expanding its program as the fate of federal student loan forgiveness remains up in the air. Congress recently passed legislation that will bring an end to the pause on student loan payments. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on President Biden’s loan forgiveness executive order sometime in the next few weeks.
Since the school launched Warrior Way Back, over 330 students have come back to the university to pursue their education. 140 have now earned their bachelor’s degrees.
Iris Blakely was one of those students who is now pursuing her education again thanks to Warrior Way Back.
She last attended college at Wayne State in 2007, but she had to drop out for financial reasons. But thanks to the $4,000 in debt forgiveness, almost all of her balance was wiped out and she will be returning to school this fall.
“When they emailed me I was like yes, all exclamation marks!” she said, expressing her gratitude for the program.
Blakely will be studying business administration, the same major she was pursuing years ago. In addition to the financial support, Blakely will be receiving counseling intended to help her get acclimated to college as an adult learner.
“They have these sessions where you can get on a Zoom meeting and then they discuss different things and different resources that you can attend to,” she noted, adding that she is also in an online group with other adult learners who can support each other.
Only students who attended Wayne State are eligible for the debt forgiveness, but the university does provide counseling to all students who want to return to college to finish their degrees.
While they did not provide specific numbers, school administrators argued the debt forgiveness program is not a substantial financial burden on the university.
“To be candid, if they never come back they’re never going to pay the money, anyhow. So it doesn’t really cost us money. We’re forgiving debts that the likelihood is we wouldn’t collect,” said Mark Kornbluh, who serves as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.
He pointed out that returning students bring with them new funding that benefits the university.
“The truth is, it makes us money… because we’re forgiving the $4,000 and many of them get financial aid but they qualify for Pell now — we would get the federal financial aid to pay their tuition, or we get other state financial aid to pay their tuition,” he said. “Or some of them are going to pay their new tuition, it’s the old tuition we’re forgiving.”
For Blakely, the program serves as a second chance to pursue the degree she always wanted.
“I just want people to know, it’s not too late for you to accomplish a dream, for you to start a career, for you to get a degree. It’s not too late for you, there’s so much support here,” she said.