Deep collaboration between higher education, business, and local government is creating new pathways to success for Detroit workers.
“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. 
Cain was determined to finish her education. It was part of her life plan with her fiancé, Brandon Hall. But one Monday night in 2017, just a few days after the couple had moved in together, Hall complained of chest pains. He’d been born with a heart defect, but didn’t want to go to the hospital because he’d just gotten a promotion at work. Hall asked Cain to go out and pick up some medication for him. By the time she got back, he was dead.
With all these obstacles, both financial and emotional, it took a lot to get Cain re-enrolled at Wayne State. It also took a lot of behind-the-scenes work to create the programs that would eventually help her complete her degree. In 2018, the Lumina Foundation designated Detroit as a Talent Hub, in recognition of ongoing coalition work led by the Detroit Regional Chamber, 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. 
Working with this population of adults who’ve taken classes but haven’t received a degree is an obvious move for universities. But it’s also a top priority for the local business community, says Melanie D’Evelyn, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Director of Detroit Drives Degrees: “Whenever we talk with businesses, the No. 1 issue that CEOs and our members say they are confronting is the issue of talent.” 
Coalition work comes with a host of challenges, but Detroit has been successful in bringing both business and higher education to the table. “One of the keys to our success has been starting out with the higher eds and actually proving that they are willing to implement big changes at scale,” D’Evelyn says. Building on that foundation, the Chamber and other partners, including local government and nonprofits, are also committing to make big changes. “That’s not a typical town-gown relationship, especially in a town this large,” notes Wayne State’s Medley.
Now, the Chamber and other partners are looking for more creative ways to work together, including taking the state of Michigan’s “Hot 50” in-demand jobs for the future and mapping them to local credential and degree programs. One big area of focus now is encouraging employers to offer tuition reimbursement for employees. “There’s a proven benefit to employers to do that,” D’Evelyn says. “It does help their bottom line.” The Chamber is surveying its members to see how many offer such programs and how many are interested. 
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. 
Returning to school as an adult was different, Cain says. “I approached it more with a business sense,” she says. Education and work “are not two separate entities when you’re an adult,” she says. “This is like another way of training on the job.” 
Now her new boyfriend is also enrolled in the Warrior Way Back program, and Cain herself is thinking of pursuing a master’s degree. “My dreams were torn apart,” she says, but “sometimes you have to step out of your dreams to create a better reality.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. You can learn more about their mission to prepare people for informed citizenship and success in a global economy here.