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No Small Change: How Financial Indicators Impact Student Success

Getting a college degree these days requires a substantial financial investment, one which raises the stakes for many students struggling to graduate. Seemingly minor setbacks like a missed financial aid deadline or a dropped course can derail a student’s progress, and many students find that there’s an unbridgeable gap between the funding they receive and their actual expenses. But these bumps in the road don’t just impact students – they can have significant consequences for the university’s bottom line as well.

What are the biggest risk factors for students dropping out? And what can institutions do to keep students on track? To find out, five USU institutions formed a working group to collectively explore the financial indicators of student success. What they found clearly shows that universities have a lot more work ahead of them. However, opportunities for positive change are just around the corner.

As expected, unmet financial need played a huge role in determining student success. Across the five schools, half of all entering students had unmet need – a figure which increased up to 99% at some of the institutions. This unmet need had a ripple effect on other student decisions, such as choosing to work full-time while in school, dropping courses due to non-payment, or taking too many credits at once.  Given the scope of the problem, the working group recommended that institutions find ways to provide additional financial support.

Surprisingly, many students were failing to meet routine financial aid deadlines or complete the FAFSA on time. This finding made it clear that universities could do more to get information about these critical tasks to students earlier, before they became a problem. The working group recommended that universities aggressively promote financial deadlines and make aid information more accessible. In addition, offering financial literacy courses for credit that count toward a degree would encourage students to take these courses, manage their personal finances, and make concrete progress toward graduation.

Spring Commencement 2013

Photo credit: Georgia State University

Finally, the working group learned that each of their institutions was tracking different metrics and the types of interventions they were using varied widely (of the 66 academic, social, and administrative strategies used to promote retention and graduation, only 26 were common across all five universities). This is a clear opportunity for universities to collaborate and learn from each other. Knowing which strategies are most effective and collecting the data to back them up will catalyze positive change and continuous improvement across campuses – and help more students make it to the finish line.

Additional findings and recommendations from the working group can be found in the Leadership Brief, Financial Indicators of Student Success. The collaborating institutions were:

  1. Temple University

  2. Florida International University (FIU)

  3. Georgia State University (GSU)

  4. Portland State University (PSU)

  5. University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)


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