Column: Remove barriers to college degree

By Dawn S. Medley

Imagine you are the captain of a ship and you are being told that you can have a million dollars if you complete your voyage. All you have to do is navigate an unknown ocean, with unknown rules with no prior sailing experience. Then you hit a storm, get lost, and take on water. Not only do you fail to complete the journey but you also sink the ship.

This is what happens to thousands of first generation, low-income students who head off to college. For many in the “sink or swim world,” they sank and were left with an anchor of debt weighing down their future. In addition, their transcripts which are required by institutions for admission are locked up and off-limits for past due balances and they aren’t allowed to even return to school.

Wayne State University Old Main building in Detroit on June 26, 2017.

It’s a brutal reality for many adults and Wayne State has decided to disrupt the higher education seas with a “debt forgiveness” program called the Warrior Way Back. As the only institution in the nation with this innovative program, former WSU students can erase part of their debt for successfully completing a semester and after three semesters, their debt is cleared. It’s what is needed for our students and for southeast Michigan to become an economic powerhouse once again.

Now some will say this is a small start, and I agree as it is one school meeting the needs of one student at a time. However, as a program focusing on the students who have left WSU without a degree, Warrior Way Back can serve as a catalyst for larger economic opportunity for the city of Detroit. In southeast Michigan, there are almost 700,000 adults with some college and no degree. Many owe past debts to other higher education institutions.

Wayne State has taken up this challenge in partnership with the Detroit Regional Chamber and Macomb Community College to provide our students with a path to “learn their way back.” We’ll forgive past due balances to the university if the student enrolls and does well because we believe in the tenacity of our students and because we are an institution with a renewed focus on our students succeeding.

Forgiving past debt to the university is one way we show this support. We also do it by providing financial education, emergency housing assistance, groceries from our food pantry, counseling support, and even emergency grants for students in peril. Last year, our groundbreaking Wayne State ACCESS program allowed over 1,100 freshman students to attend WSU with zero cost for tuition and fees. Our students are working hard so we’re working hard for them.

As we strive for educational access and focus on creating better opportunities for our students, we believe we must meet adult learners where they are as not everyone has smooth seas or calm waters.

So while we begin Warrior Way Back on our campus, it is our hope that we can serve as an example for other institutions to abandon the practice of locking students out of the higher education realm. Wayne State is here for Detroit. It’s where we’ve always been and we never left. We understand this city because we live it and love it — and we aren’t going to stop.

Dawn S. Medley is associate vice president of enrollment management at Wayne State University.