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Small Grants Produce Big Results to Push Students Across the College Finish Line

Spring Commencement 2013

Photo credit: Georgia State University

Nearly everyone has had, or will have, an unexpected financial need.

The car breaks down.  A child is hurt on the playground.  And as frustrating as the unexpected bill may be, redirecting a few hundred dollars from the budget to cover it won’t cost you your college degree- not unless you’re among the millions of low income students dropped out annually by unmet need.

Ironically many of these dropouts are students in good academic standing, only a semester or two from graduating.  They’ve spent years “plugging away, taking the right courses, getting the right grades,” said Tim Renick, Vice Provost and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success at Georgia State University (GSU), during a panel discussion and presentation titled “Foiling the Drop Out Trap.”

Unable to pay their college fees they are dropped from academic rolls or leave on their own over debt as small as $500-$900 dollars said Renick. Without family backup to help defray costs, many poor students, Pell grantees and low income students of color find college completion too often a dream denied by high college costs and unexpected life costs.

The panel featuring Renick and leaders from three other institutions was a featured session of the Urban Serving Universities(USU) track at the 2015 annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

The campuses represented 10 urban universities interviewed by Patricia E. Steele, founder of Higher Ed Insight, and co-author of a soon to be released report from the the USU/APLU Office of Urban Initiatives and funded by the Lumina Foundation and the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation. The report presents research on the issue and campus innovations tackling the problem such as GSU’s Panther Retention Grant program.

“There are a number of small things that can bring students down, stopping them from graduating,” said Shari Garmise, Vice President of the USU/APLU Office of Urban Initiatives, of why her office is examining the issue and possible solutions.  “Completion grants are just one way to confront the problem.”

Many of the transformations are still evolving as student success pathways supporting financial aid and other efforts giving low income students hope by providing emergency funds, mitigating costs, retaining at risk students, and even offering grants that allow students who have dropped out to return and graduate.  The practices, however, are no bleeding heart band aids administrators said but sound business practices returning solid ROI, helping students persist, and inspiring support from the communities where the schools are located.

Take GSU.  The Atlanta-based institution which is central to the revitalization of the city’s downtown area enrolls more African American, Latino, Asian American, first-generation and Pell grant students than any other four-year institution in Georgia.  During the recession GSU lost $40 million dollars in appropriations but still grew revenues annually, partly from increased endowment but largely from student retention said Renick.  The university held onto students and the students clung to it, paying bills, tuition and fees that helped GSU “get through a tough financial time.”

Stacey Moore, Associate Vice President for Student Success at The University of Akron reported an annual ROI of $700,000 from their completion grant program, generated from retained tuition and fees.

At the University of Washingon-Tacoma, Cedric Howard, Vice Chancellor, Division of Student and Enrollment Services, discussed a broad array of support programs helping their at risk students persist. They range from emergency funds for food and transportation cards to homeless students to retention grant funds that, in the case of one academic major, reduced the drop out rate from 25 percent to about ten percent among students who dropped out each Spring to fish in Alaska to support their families.

The newly conceived  Home Stretch Program at IUPUI offers completion grants to students in their fifth or sixth year of study said Rebecca Porter, Associate Vice Chancellor, Enrollment Management. Of the four efforts featured it was the only loan program, but it had a carrot attached.  Students accepting the loan must attend school full time and graduate within a year. If they succeed, the loan is forgiven.  If  they do not, they must repay the low interest  loan but at least the student will have advanced that much further towards his or her dream.

Antranik Askander. a Home Stretch student, accepted the challenge and shared his life transforming story with the Indianapolis Star.  It is a journey, he told them, that he has been on a decade.  Now he can finally see the finish line.


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