New EMU program offers debt forgiveness in exchange for public service

A new program at Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Engage @EMU office will give current and former students the opportunity to pay off debts to the university through community service.


The Eagle Engage Corps pilot program was launched to give financially challenged EMU undergrads a better chance to complete their degrees.


"As a school of opportunity and a school focused on first-generation college students, it's our responsibility to find ways to support students who start the journey here to complete it," says Jessica "Decky" Alexander, professor and director of academic engagement programs for Engage @EMU.


The Corps is open to undergrad students and former students in good academic standing who have a declared major and/or minor and have completed 78 to 100 credits.


The program is aimed at helping upper-level students who have successfully completed a year or two of school but are financially unable to continue, especially as schooling costs more in upper-level classes.


Participants are expected to complete 100 hours of public service in an EMU community program over the course of a semester. Students could be placed in programs like the after-school enrichment program Bright Futures or other local programs that EMU helps coordinate, such as Upward Bound or Community Navigators.


The commitment equals about seven hours per week. Alexander says the volunteering workload was chosen to be fairly light since the average EMU student works a paid job around 30 hours a week on top of his or her classes.


Students must enroll in a minimum of nine credit hours a semester for up to three consecutive semesters while they are volunteering with the Corps. A student who completes 300 hours over three semesters can have account balances up to $6,000 forgiven, while students who complete one or two semesters can receive partial debt forgiveness.


Alexander emphasizes that this is not a debt forgiveness plan for federal student loans. The program only covers outstanding accounts a student has with EMU directly.


The application period for the pilot program is now closed, and Alexander says that Engage @EMU expects to work with about 15 students to start. After the pilot is completed, staff at Engage @EMU will assess how the program needs to be adjusted and will roll it out to a larger pool of applicants in the future.


"We need to troubleshoot things that work and don't work, and we don't want to have so large a cohort that we can't navigate that," Alexander says.


The pilot program also aims to identify reasons people haven't been able to complete their degrees and what kind of support they need, whether that's more support from an advisor or financial literacy classes.


"Part of the reason this initiative has a service component is that research tells us students engaged in community-based learning are more likely to stay in school," Alexander says.


More information about the program is available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of Engage @EMU.

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