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Going for Impact: Lessons from Piloting Completion Grants at Nine Universities

For low-income students, lacking a small amount of money can determine if they stay in college or drop out. Even when students receive financial aid, financial challenges throughout the student journey do not disappear.

That’s why, in 2016, USU in partnership with APLU selected nine universities to pilot or launch completion grants – microgrants provided to students who are academically on track to graduate within a year and have genuine unmet financial need. That need is determined  when the total cost of enrollment exceeds the student’s available resources (e.g. Pell Grants, Work-study).

Together – Cleveland State University, Florida International University, Kent State University, The Ohio State University Regional Campuses (Lima, Mansfield, Marion, Newark), University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, University of Central Florida, University of Houston, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Wayne State University – supporting 1,213 students, of which 93% were either retained or completed. Equally, because the value of this effort is so clear, over half of the pilot sites leveraged additional financial support to expand the reach of this effort to more students.  Given that  the participating institutions collectively identified 8,062 as eligible and in need of the grant, fund growth matters.

In the words of one student from The Ohio State University at Newark campus,

“I honestly didn’t know how I was going to be able to make it through the semester. When you reached out to me about the grant and I actually received the money, it literally brought tears to my eyes.”

The pilot program also revealed other equally important lessons about supporting students, including:

  1. Completion grants, like many other student support programs, address one challenge, when most students faced more than one challenge. Thus, we need systems change, and personalized portfolios of support pulled together from a larger, well-connected web of resources to support students.

  2. Financial need is growing on campus, making the need for programs that target financial wellness and affordability a critical focus.

  3. Students also received an emotional boost from receiving the award as well as financial support. Since students are often juggling multiple challenges, completion grants have a larger bang for the buck. As one University of North Carolina at Charlotte student noted,

“…the university took the time to notice that I needed extra help. The grant made me feel more invested in the campus because I felt they were more invested in my being able to perform my best with less of a financial burden.”

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Banner Photo Credit:  iStock monkeybusiness images


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