Loan Forgiveness Could Bring Back Students With Some Credit, No Degree: Community College Leaders

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The Biden administration’s announcement that up to $20,000 of student loan debt will be forgiven for those earning under $125,000 has received mixed reactions. Nonetheless, leaders of the nation’s community colleges say that the move will change lives. They say the announcement signals serious conversations about college affordability.Dr. Karen A. StoutDr. Karen A. Stout

Some are hopeful that the forgiveness could mean a return to postsecondary education for those with some credit but no degree.

“Lifting the burden of debt may be just what these learners need to return to college to gain a credential that transforms their lives,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, an organization that supports over 300 community colleges working to transform higher education into a space for all.

Stout called Biden’s loan forgiveness “significant” and a “cause for hope, an important step in responding to the financial burdens that the cost of attending college places on too many of our students, particularly those who are economically marginalized, first-generation, and racially minoritized.”

Dr. Michael A. Baston, president of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Cleveland, Ohio, said his administrative team has already begun looking through data to discover former students who may have had to stop out for financial reasons. Baston said they are planning a targeted recruitment to bring those students back to the fold to finish their degrees.

“We have the data on those who stop out and drop out, and we can determine if part of the reason is financial, because we often hear it from students. For students going to collections, what are the amounts at play, and how can we align our strategy of bringing them back to school, understanding how we can help them with the forgiveness of the debt,” said Baston.

Dr. Michael A. BastonDr. Michael A. BastonBaston said his team is thinking creatively about the “host of opportunities” the loan forgiveness provides. His financial aid department is looking into braiding loan forgiveness with the college’s other supports to make sure students, current or former, are able to take full advantage of the relief available. Baston said he is also considering ways to give credit to potential returning students who started at Tri-C but were unable to finish their educational journeys after transferring out.

“Students didn’t take those loans because they wanted to live the high life in college, they took loans because, for some, this was the only way to take care of their family and to make progress in school,” said Baston. “Why would you need to forgive debt? Because they needed those loans to buy food, baby formula, Pampers, and medication that may not be covered by other sources. They are trying to lift themselves through education. Americans are striving, and so for many, these loans help them continue to make academic progress and do so with a good conscience and a full stomach.”

Dr. Leigh Goodson, president of Tulsa Community College (TCC) in Oklahoma, said she is most excited by the conversation that loan forgiveness has started around the affordability of college.

“[It's] not just affordability of community college, but the affordability of any college for everybody," said Goodson. "And even for our students, who are just one flat tire away from deciding they can’t enroll, we want to make it as affordable and accessible as possible.”

Goodson said many TCC students are working at least one job, and others are student parents balancing their schedules with their children’s needs. About 45% of TCC's student population hails from minoritized communities, and many are first-generation students.

“We want to do everything we can to make the experience more affordable,"  she said. "And we’re really focused on workforce development, so it’s important to us that students from all backgrounds have the ability to access and navigate higher education. We can’t keep our economy sustained if we leave people out."

Goodson said the forgiveness would bring “welcome relief” to any students struggling to make ends meet and reaffirm their ability to continue their education.

“It’s not hard to be in the category of finding higher education unaffordable,” said Goodson. “We all need to be talking about the unattainable cost of higher education and how it is keeping too many people out of the workforce and away from a family-sustaining wage. The real value in the announcement is already happening: the discussion of the high costs to go to college.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.