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.
To ensure students with unmet financial need and a proven record of academic success do not drop out for financial reasons, a growing number of public universities are offering completion grants, often only a thousand dollars, to help students make tuition payments as they near graduation. In 2018, drawing on the lessons from some of these institutions' work, APLU issued a learning brief sharing lessons about completion grant programs.
The grants have proven highly effective in driving graduation gains so far. In 2016, USU and APLU awarded $450,000 to nine APLU-USU universities to help institutions launch or expand micro-grant programs. An APLU-USU examination of the grants showed that 93 percent of recipients were either retained or completed their degrees. The grants also strengthened the infrastructure of institutions serving a significant share of non-traditional, disadvantaged students who are low-income, first-generation, Pell Grant-eligible, and minorities.
Joining with researchers at Temple University, APLU and USU have undertaken a rigorous empirical study completion grants’ efficacy across eleven institutions. The study is funded with a five‐year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.
In the first year of the grant, the research team studied the implementation of completion grant programs at seven institutions. The team then collaborated with participating institutions to co-construct a common completion grant program across 11 institutions that researchers will conduct randomized controlled trials on completion grants to examine their effectiveness. APLU and researchers at Temple's released a policy brief on completion grants in 2019.
Eleven APLU institutions are participating in the full-scale randomized controlled trial evaluations: Arizona State University, University of Colorado Boulder, Florida International University, Florida State University, IUPUI, Portland State University, Rutgers University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Memphis, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Virginia Commonwealth University.