Many students — particularly low-income, first-generation learners — are highly susceptible to dropping out of college due to a financial hardship. Facing a gap in tuition and fees may give them little choice but to stop attending classes when there is nowhere else to turn for help. While it can happen at any stage of a student's experience, it is compounded when the student is within a year of graduating. Students who stop attending near the end of their programs often have amassed a degree's worth of student loan debt. Without the earning power a credential or degree can provide, they can struggle to repay what they owe.


The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), with research funding from Lumina Foundation and Great Lakes, explored how retention and completion grant programs at urban-serving universities with diverse student populations are being used to help students graduate. The result is a comprehensive report (see sidebar) of best practices for universities to consider when creating or expanding a student retention or degree completion grant program.

Armed with the knowledge that college completion grants work, Great Lakes and Lumina Foundation made two-year grants of $50,000 to each of nine colleges as part of APLU's completion grant program. We supported Cleveland State University, Kent State University, The Ohio State University and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The funding was used to implement and administer the grant program at these institutions already serving a significant percentage of low-income, first generation and minority students.

Completion grants were distributed for a minimum of four semesters at all nine sub-grantees, supporting 475 students. Of all the students that colleges supported during fall 2016, approximately 98% either graduated or returned for spring 2017 semester.

APLU has secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Science that will evaluate completion grants and increase the number of colleges implementing them. This complementary project will increase knowledge within the field about the most effective strategies for scaling completion grant programs.


In 2019 APLU shared lessons learned from this project. They reported that the colleges’ most effective strategies were to create early buzz about completion grants, build public support and use other institutions as mentors. They also highlighted the need for the field to address rapidly rising costs for both students and institutions.


Contact Senior Program Officer Sue Cui at