Democratic proposals for cancellation of student loans are so far available in two sizes: large and larger.

President Joe Biden campaigned on a plan to provide $ 10,000 federal student loan forgiveness per borrower (although he ultimately left the idea of ​​its proposed budget). Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren has asked for a general pardon of up to $ 50,000 in federal loans per student, while Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed the cancellation of all student debt, at a staggering cost of $ 1.6 trillion.

But as an innovative effort by a group of Detroit-area colleges proves, even modest student debt relief can have a big impact, especially when paired with a second chance to get a college degree. for those who have interrupted their studies. Programs like Wayne State University Returning warrior and University of Eastern Michigan‘s Eagle Engage Corps offer alumni a combination of loan cancellation with a chance to complete their degrees. This is a smart, targeted approach to student debt relief that could benefit hundreds of thousands of students across the country. More importantly, it won’t cost billions of dollars and schools don’t have to wait for Congress to act.

Roughly 36 million According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Americans in 2018 had “some college” but no degree, and among them, about 10 percent – or 3.5 million – are “potential graduates” with at least two years of higher education. Unpaid student debt keeps many students from going back to school. Colleges typically don’t allow students to re-enroll (and incur more obligations) unless past debts are paid. Most schools also do not disclose transcripts to students whose balances are still owed (a practice that some states moving exclude).

For former students who dropped out near graduation and with relatively low debt, these hurdles are unnecessarily harsh, says Wayne State University Associate Vice-President Dawn Medley. “If you have a car and you need the tires but you don’t pay for the tires, they come and get the tires, not the car,” she said. “But in higher education, we are holding every part of your academics hostage, and I just don’t think that’s the way we need to go.”

Medley’s solution was Wayne State’s Warrior Way Back program. Launched in 2019, the program allows former students who must $ 1,500 or less to school to re-enroll, despite their unpaid debts. As long as they maintain passing grades, students get a portion of their debt forgiven each semester. Participants – mostly adult learners juggling work and family – also receive a variety of supports such as academic advice, career advice, and help accessing childcare to ensure that they get a degree. So far, the program has enrolled more than 230 students and is on track to reach 70 by the end of 2021, Wayne State’s Medley said. “The youngest student we had was 21 and the oldest was 67,” she said. “We asked mothers to graduate with their daughters and be in class together. It was very cool.

Among the effort’s current registrants is Jermaine Perguese, who hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree in construction management in December. Perguese, in his early 30s, said he transferred to Wayne State from Tennessee State University in 2012 but dropped out. “I really didn’t have a lot of support when I first got on campus, and it was tough when you were working full time,” he said. “And then once I started struggling in class, it was just easy to quit. “

This time around, Perguese gets the support he needs, thanks to advisor Amber Neher. Neher helped Perguese resolve a student loan default he didn’t know existed and worked with him to apply the credits he had already earned upon graduation. “We focus a lot on debt cancellation, but it’s usually just a small piece of a bigger picture,” Neher said. With her support, Perguese began taking two courses per semester and has since progressed to a full course load. “I took 20 classes in 12 months,” he says.

Students like Perguese aren’t the only ones benefiting from programs like Warrior Way Back. Local economies benefit from a more educated workforce that can help a city or region attract good jobs. In Detroit, for example, just 15 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher (up from 32% nationally), which is why the Detroit Regional Chamber announced its approval program and helped replicate the model in neighboring institutions. According to the Chamber, nearly 700,000 adults in the Detroit area have colleges but no degrees, many of them are potential beneficiaries of these initiatives.

Schools also benefit from debt relief programs that allow students to come back and stay enrolled. On the one hand, Associate Vice President Medley said the program has already brought Wayne State $ 2 million in net income from students who can now return to campus (or online) and take additional classes. necessary for obtaining their diploma. “It’s really simple math,” Medley said. “If you’re going to take six credit hours with us, that’s about $ 3,000. All we do is write off a $ 500 debt and generate $ 2,500 in net tuition income. “

But more importantly, says Medley, the university is getting a second chance with alumni. “It completely changed the relationship we have with these students because we were the perverted bill collector that kept them from graduating,” Medley said. “Now we’re the institution that’s like, ‘Hey, give us another chance, and see if we can be a partner in helping you get that degree. “

In view of these advantages, other Michigan schools have followed Wayne State’s lead. As of 2019, schools adopting debt relief programs for returning students have included Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn and University of Eastern Michigan at Ypsilanti. In Eastern Michigan, alumni can earn up to $ 6,000 of forgiven debts, provided that the students also perform 30 hours of community service per semester and maintain their grades. Oakland University combines its loan cancellation programs with $ 500 in micro-grants per semester as an additional sweetener. So far, says Kelly Flemming, senior associate director of Oakland, the program has enrolled 286 students and graduated 123 since 2019. Some of those students, Flemming says, have worked with the school for over a year. before their first day of school to make sure they have the resources they need, such as tutoring and child care. “We want students to feel really comfortable and confident in the path they are taking,” she said.

Innovative approaches like Warrior Way Back offer a potential way out of dead-end debates about the extent of student debt relief. First, they show that you don’t need blanket budget debt forgiveness to dramatically improve student lives. Second, they point to a potentially vital role for colleges, which so far have only been portrayed as bad guys burying student borrowers in unmanageable debt.

Current discussions on canceling student loans should include proposals to encourage more efforts like Warrior Way Back. This could mean grants to help small schools cover the initial costs of starting a program, as well as technical assistance to share best practices. The result could be a renewed college focus on the resources students need to be successful, which Eastern Michigan administrators say is exactly what happened.

“If you want to open up to the public and say that you are a school of opportunity, it doesn’t just start when you step into the institution – it has to be continuous throughout,” said Jessica “Decky” Alexander, who is a professor and director of the Eastern Michigan Debt Cancellation Program. “Even if they leave, we have to find a way to keep the students coming back and to come up with paths to honor the start we gave them here. … This goes to the heart of what public post-secondary education could and should be.

Students need more than debt relief. They need a fresh start and a second chance. Congress would have to provide more than big checks to make this happen.