A New Approach to Debt Forgiveness at Wayne State University

Across higher education, there are more than 34 million students with some college credit, but no credential.

That’s almost 1 in every 10 Americans.

Dawn Medley, Associate Vice President of Enrollment at Wayne State University, is looking to change that statistic, and she’s starting with the people in her area that fall into that category. They have been to college, but they have no degree.

There are 690,000 of those individuals in the SE Michigan area alone. For the students who have past-due balances, federal financial aid dollars cannot pay for a past debt. These loans can only pay for a current semester enrollment. It’s a tough hill for students to climb to not only clear their debt, but come up with enough money to continue their education.

Many students also have their transcripts held hostage as schools won’t release transcripts if there are past due bills. 13,000 students who fall into this category have left Wayne State since 2005. Dawn and her team have come up with a plan to get them back on their way to a college degree.

If the student has less than $1,500 in tuition owed to Wayne State, their debt will be forgiven up to $500 per each semester they are enrolled. Wayne State is getting students back in the door and giving them a path to improving their life!

We sat down with Dawn for this episode of the Enrollment Growth Podcast to talk about the Warrior Way Back Program, the benefits to the school, and most importantly the benefits to the students who are enrolling in the program.

The Warrior Way Back Program

This debt-forgiveness program that Wayne State is pioneering is all about one thing: re-engaging with students. Students who have dropped out of college without finishing their degree do so for a reason. It could be for financial, personal, or health-related reasons. The list goes on and on.  

But maybe these students fell through the cracks the first time around and could have received more help than they did. Circumstances piled up that could have been alleviated. Dawn admits that in higher ed sometimes colleges and universities lose the ability to be personal. This program is the polar opposite; it is highly personal. Dawn and her team are getting in the weeds with these students who have come back for second time. They are highly involved in their lives.

They have two rules:

  1. If a student lands with you as an advisor, you can’t send them somewhere else.  You need to walk with them through their graduation.
  2. There are no shoulder shrugs.  If a student asks you to solve a problem, you aren’t allowed to say you don’t know the answer to the question.  You have to dig with them for the answer!

This is a unique program, and Dawn feels as though she is really building the plane as she flies it, but they believe in what they are doing.  They are helping students get out of debt, repair their credit, and continue their education!

Enrollment Growth Benefits for Wayne State

The birth rate in the US is declining, and universities like Wayne State are feeling the impact.  There simply aren’t enough 18 year old freshmen to fill the seats needed. So, Dawn had to get creative to boost enrollment.

Dawn wants to show students a “new” Wayne State, one they hadn’t seen years before when they decided to leave. At the same time, she is also seeing “new” students. She’s seeing that these re-engaged students are often more mature; they have learned from their mistakes.  Wayne State has seen their graduation rate skyrocket by around 21 points in the last six years.

Wayne State is hoping that this new model becomes nationally adopted because it is benefitting students and universities alike.

Making Sure Students Succeed the Second Time Around

Other than getting their debt forgiven (which alone is a huge benefit!), what is Wayne State doing differently to connect with re-engaged students?  To put it simply, they’re doing a lot.

They’re providing access to a food pantry to those who can’t afford food.  There is a program in place to help students find housing, including those who are escaping domestic violence.  Emergency financial aid is available for those who blow a tire, or are in danger of their water services getting turned off.  There is a daycare on campus. There are even VIP programs for veterans and minorities who need services brought to them.

This is truly a holistic approach.  Dawn and the faculty at Wayne State have left no stone unturned.

Dawn would love to see this type of program rolled out across the country.  She loves to talk to people at other higher education organizations so she can share stories of her victories and struggles.  

She encourages those thinking about implementing such strategies to find partners in the area, whether that be businesses, non-profits, or other people just looking to help.  Don’t do all of the heavy lifting alone!

This post is based on a podcast with Dawn Medley. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.