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Rethinking financial aid: Small grants make a big difference in college completion

New graduates enter High Point Solutions Stadium before the start of the Rutgers University graduation ceremony in Piscataway Township, N.J., Sunday, May 13, 2018. Family and friends watched as over 18,000 graduates received degrees on Mother’s Day. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

By Shari Garmise

Students across the country are walking across the stage this month to accept college diplomas, marking one of the most consequential achievements of their lives. Yet far too many of their peers come agonizingly close to joining them on the podium, only to fall just short of the credits needed to graduate.

For some of these students, financial strain has simply knocked them off course. We tend to view financial aid as something that seals the deal for students: with the door of opportunity open, the only thing standing between them and a degree is their drive to complete it. But while financial aid sets students on the path to graduation, even the most determined students can fail to reach the finish line when financial shortfalls arise late in their college career.

The students most likely to drop out due to financial distress? They’re disproportionately underrepresented minorities, from low-income backgrounds, or first-generation college goers. And even as these students represent a large and growing presence on campus, the financial aid available to them covers a shrinking share of the cost of college. Students who discontinue their education for financial reasons often do so when conventional financial aid reaches its limits.

Fortunately, colleges and universities can help fill the gap. Financial aid needs to be reimagined so it not only facilitates college access, but also fosters college completion. Some schools have begun to recognize that for low-income students nearing graduation, a small amount of extra money – even a few hundred dollars – can determine whether they go on to complete their degree or have to drop out. With no real savings to tap and a modest but unpaid tuition bill, an unexpected expense such as a higher-than-expected winter heating bill, dead car battery, or even a family member in need of medicine can derail students just as they’re about to complete their degrees.

Unconventional financial aid can help. In recent years, institutions have launched completion grant programs to proactively identify academically successful students who are a semester or two away from earning a degree, but have exhausted all known sources of aid and are on the brink of being forced to drop out. The schools then provide these students with completion grants, usually ranging from $500 to $1,500, to help them meet their expenses and finish their degrees.

Although the completion grants provide a relatively small amount of money, they have shown promising impact. We recently completed a pilot program with nine universities to replicate and track completion grants. Across the institutions, the grants reached more than 1,200 students – with 93 percent of recipients graduating or continuing their studies over a year and a half. By definition, these are students who are at high risk of dropping out. The participating schools estimate that 10 percent of seniors on their campuses would qualify for completion grants if the programs are expanded.

The idea has spread since we launched our pilot. Other organizations are working to expand in this area, including a recent announcement that the University Innovation Alliance will undertake completion grant efforts. With support from the U.S. Department of Education, we’re now working with researchers at Temple University to study what makes these completion grants most effective with an eye toward expanding them further at other universities.

We know every institution has students with unmet need. But while unmet need is universal across institutions, programs to help students close financial gaps are not. And students, institutions, and society all suffer when financial hurdles knock students off the path to graduation. By redesigning financial aid so it supports every student’s progress and journey toward graduation, institutions can make sure a few hundred dollars doesn’t stand between a qualified student and a degree that unlocks a lifetime of opportunity.

Garmise is vice president of urban initiatives at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and executive director of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities.