It takes a village: How coalition work is transforming lives in detroit
“Life happened.” That’s the short version of why Shawnte Cain left Wayne State University with only one class left to take before completing her degree. The longer version: she was working multiple jobs and taking care of her grandmother, who was ill. “I just didn’t end up going back,” Cain says now. Even with only one class remaining, a lot had to happen for Cain to complete her degree. When she inquired about going back, in 2017, she learned another class had been added to the requirements for her program. She also owed Wayne State money. “I didn’t even know what my outstanding balance was, I just knew that I had one,” she says. That debt would have to be settled before she could re-enroll. In 2018, the Lumina Foundation designated Detroit as a Talent Hub, in recognition of ongoing coalition work led by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Wayne State University, and Macomb Community College. Together, they had set a goal of re-engaging the region’s 690,000 adults who had completed some college but hadn’t gotten a degree. The Talent Hub designation recognizes communities that are doing innovative work to increase post-high school learning and training, with a focus on eliminating educational disparities for communities of color. Talent Hubs receive grants to support their work. “The Talent Hub [designation] brought us to this point,” says Dawn S. Medley, the associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State University. Medley says the city had applied to the program and been rejected, which made the coalition realize, “We had to bring our A-game.” Medley created one of the programs that enabled Cain to re-enroll and complete her degree: Wayne State’s Warrior Way Back program. She realized that outstanding educational debt often created compounding problems for students: “We just locked people out of higher education and locked them out of the opportunity to ever pay off that debt.” “I’m an English major,” Medley says, but she found the math simple: forgiving some former students’ outstanding debt would allow them to re-enroll and start paying tuition again. That insight became the Warrior Way Back program, in which students with less than $1,500 in outstanding debt can re-enroll and “learn” off their debt at a rate of $500 for each semester completed. Medley says the program has generated roughly $750,000 for the university. “The opportunity to do what is right for the student has become an opportunity to do what is right for the institution,” she says. When Cain did re-enroll at Wayne State in 2018, she took advantage of both Warrior Way Back and a tuition reimbursement program provided by her employer, the MGM Grand Detroit. Warrior Way Back representatives “were kind of like my concierge team to make sure I had the best experience going back to school,” she says. With all this support at her back, Cain actually went on to take another two classes after completing her degree in public relations, allowing her to update her social media skills—and keep her son in WSU’s preschool, which is free for students.
August 3, 2020