Ithaka S&R completed a national scan in 2020 calling attention to the issue of stranded credits.  Stranded credits are credits earned by students in higher education that remain inaccessible to them (for transfer or completion purposes) due to unpaid balances.  Often times, these balances are relatively low and owed to the institution for various campus fees.  Ithaka S&R’s “national estimates suggest there could be as much as $15 billion in unpaid balances to colleges and universities, and roughly 6.6 million students may have stranded credits.”  Community college students have an average unpaid balance of $631.

Partnerships are finding new ways to forgive unpaid balances to re-enroll adult learners who have these stranded credits.  The concept was first piloted by the Detroit Talent Hub with their Warrior Way Back program.  The program forgave up to $5,000 of unpaid institutional debt on a prorated basis, allowing students to re-enroll and complete their credential.  Paired with improved advising and instructional supports, Warrior Way Back students outperformed their peers in persistence and credential completion.

Other Talent Hubs were quick to replicate the model.   The first statewide debt forgiveness program was launched by Missouri College and Career Attainment Network in 2019.  And the Cleveland Talent Hub is leading a regional compact to reduce stranded credits, improve transfer rates, and accelerate credential attainment.

Ithaka S&R’s report built from these early exemplars and raised attention to the issue to national policymakers.  Other partnerships interested in tackling institutional and regoinal debt forgiveness strategies should contact Dakota Pawlicki at CivicLab to get started.


Karon, Julia, James D. Ward, Catharine B. Hill, and Martin Kurzweil. “Solving Stranded Credits: Assessing the Scope and Effects of Transcript Withholding on Students, States, and Institutions.” Ithaka S+R. Last Modified 5 October 2020.

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