At many colleges, students will be automatically dropped from classes or prohibited from registering if they have an outstanding balance on their school account, even a fairly small one. Consequently, a senior who has invested thousands of dollars in his or her education may be prevented from graduating over an unpaid bill of a few hundred dollars, whether it's tuition, lab fees, parking fines or any number of other charges. Instead of completing their program on schedule, obtaining a well-earned credential, and emerging with bright career prospects, they may find their plans delayed for years—or even permanently—over a relatively small sum of money. Students of color, students from low-income households and first-generation students make up a disproportionate share of those who find themselves in this bind, contributing to disparities in degree attainment and labor market outcomes.
Completion grants—last-mile aid awarded to students within a semester or two of graduating—have proven to be an effective tool for improving completion rates among historically underserved students. Georgia State University's Panther Retention Grant program exemplifies this approach. Launched in 2011, GSU's program has helped more than 8,000 low-income students persist in their education with awards averaging $900. Since its inception, more than 60 percent of senior Panther Retention Grant recipients have graduated within a year.
GSU is a member of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a group of 11 major public research universities that collaborate to implement innovative projects designed to promote the success of underrepresented students. Ascendium is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund a $4 million grant to UIA to pilot and evaluate completion grant programs similar to GSU's at the other schools that make up the alliance. GSU will provide programmatic support to other UIA campuses during the implementation process. Once the programs are in place, the universities will work together to study the impact of completion grants on student success.
Completion grants complement another critical retention tool we funded—emergency grants. But there are important differences between those two forms of aid. While emergency grants are designed to help with unforeseen expenses paid to third parties, like medical bills or car repairs, completion grants are for sums owed to the institution itself. And unlike emergency grants, completion grants are typically initiated by the college rather than by the student. The college identifies students who are close to completing their studies but are at risk of being thwarted due to an unpaid balance, and then proactively credits the completion grant to their account.
The chief aims of this project are to help colleges (1) understand what it takes to implement and sustain a successful completion grant program; (2) determine the best criteria—in addition to income eligibility—for awarding the grants; and (3) gauge the return on investment in terms of increased completion rates.
We're hopeful that the impressive results the Panther Retention Grant approach has produced at GSU can be achieved at other colleges that serve large numbers of financially vulnerable students.
As of Spring 2019, 79% of Fall 2017 awardees, 83% of Spring 2018 awardees and 85% of Fall 2018 awardees have either graduated or were still enrolled. During the project’s third year, UIA is solidifying plans to share lessons learned, including development of a playbook and an online platform to make best practices widely accessible to practitioners.