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APLU and Temple University Announce Effort to Help Universities Improve & Grow Small-Dollar Completion Grants Aimed at Turning Would-Be Dropouts into College Graduates

February 6, 2017

Washington, DC — In an effort to prevent low-income college students nearing graduation from dropping out, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Temple University today announced they will work on a five-year project to improve and grow small-dollar completion grants aimed at ensuring such students complete their degree. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is funding the $3.98 million grant, which will evaluate and work to enhance completion grants at up to 10 APLU member institutions.

Completion grants help cash-strapped college seniors in good academic standing make tuition payments so they can remain enrolled and complete their degrees.  These students are on the verge of dropping out due to small financial shortfalls despite being so close to earning their diploma. These targeted aid programs, which often provide $500 to $1,500 in emergency aid, have proven highly effective at ensuring these students stay enrolled in class and make progress toward their degree, ultimately helping them graduate.

The IES Assessment Grant will fund the administration and evaluation of completion grant programs at these APLU institutions to examine their effectiveness in driving degree completion improvements. Leaders of the grant project at APLU and Temple University believe the project study has the potential to establish a broader empirical basis for the adoption of degree completion grant programs. Such programs could become a U.S. Department of Education-approved evidence-based strategy to advance student success.

A college degree has never been more important, but as we look to expand access to more first-generation and low-income students we must recognize that cost too often becomes a roadblock. We know that far too many students who are on track to graduate drop out of school simply because they don’t have the necessary financial resources. That’s bad for both the student and the institution,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, and the project’s Principal Investigator. “I’ve spent 15 years hunting for ways to make college more affordable, and completion grants are a low-cost approach that is potentially highly effective in raising graduation rates. That’s a win-win for students and their institutions. That’s very exciting.”   

Completion grant interventions have already been found to be effective in non-randomized pilots at several institutions. At Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), students receiving completion grants were 44 percent more likely to complete their degree within a year than comparable students who received no completion grant. Georgia State University – a pioneer of completion grants that has refined its program over several years – has produced even larger graduation gains with degree completion grants. The graduation rate for Georgia State students receiving completion grants was 134 percent higher two terms after the grant than for similar students who received no completion grant.

“This grant represents the first comprehensive effort to evaluate the efficacy of completion grants in a national, rigorous way,” said Shari Garmise, Vice President of APLU’s Office of Urban Initiatives and Executive Director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Institutions (USU) and a co-PI on the effort. “Completion grants are life-changers for low-income students.  This modest amount of extra emergency aid has shown tremendous promise in helping low-income students complete their degrees at a number of institutions. The results of this project could well more firmly establish completion grants as a broadly accepted way to increase graduation rates – not just at the institutions in this study, but at universities all across the country.”

Unmet financial need remains a significant barrier to degree completion for many low-income students, especially those in their final year of college – when savings are often exhausted and traditional need-based financial aid proves insufficient in covering students’ expenses. Nearly 15 percent of students with three-quarters of their required credits fulfilled leave college without degrees, often due to financial constraints. Completion grants offer awards to students who are on track to graduate, but lack a small amount of money, often only a few hundred dollars, to make tuition payments.

The Department of Education-funded grant will proceed in two phases. The initial, one-and-a-half year phase of grant will examine completion grants at seven universities to asses key features of completion grant programs – including how they are targeted and delivered to students, their costs, their impact on student financial aid, and how universities participating in the completion grant programs under review will implement them.

In the second phase of the grant, APLU and Temple University will work with partner institutions to conduct a randomized-controlled trial of the completion grants. This evaluation will subject participating degree completion grant programs to a rigorous evaluation. Researchers – who also include Jed Richardson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Travis T. York, APLU, Douglas Webber at Temple University, Tammy Kolbe at the University of Vermont and Jim Olick of Johnson and Wales University – will randomly assign eligible students to a group receiving completion grants while simultaneously assigning eligible students to a control group that doesn’t receive a completion grant.

Completion grants in the randomized-controlled study have four components. First, financial aid that enables students to remain in enrolled. Second, messaging on the importance of completing a degree and the expectations of the completion grants. Third, requirements that students demonstrate their commitment to completing their degree –such as making an easy-to-fulfill promise to meet with their academic advisor and the more difficult pledge to complete their degree. And finally, additional student services such as advising aimed at helping students complete their degrees.

The seven APLU institutions participating in the initial phase of the study are Arizona State University, Florida International University, IUPUI, Kent State University, the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the non-Columbus campuses of The Ohio State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Three additional APLU institutions will be eligible to participate in the second phase of the grant. Eight institutions will then be selected from the total of 10 eligible institutions. Researchers will submit their findings to peer-reviewed outlets.

The U.S. Department of Education grant is the latest APLU-USU effort to drive transformative change at public universities to advance student success and adapt to the demands of the 21st century. Last year, APLU with its partner organization, USU, the, a group of 35 urban-serving public research institutions, issued a report chronicling micro-grant programs at 10 public urban research institutions. The report provided a how-to manual designed to help campuses implement and scale micro-grant programs to improve student retention and graduation.

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