New Report Evaluates Georgia State’s Micro-Grants Program

When Georgia State University administrators realized they were barring approximately 1,000 students each semester because they owed the university money, university leaders knew they had to. develop a plan that addressed financial barriers to completion.

In 2011, they launched the Panther Retention Grant program, which covers outstanding student balances. The program is for students with good academic standing, with a GPA of 2.0 or higher, who are at risk of being removed from enrollment rolls due to outstanding debts of $2,500 or less. Eligible students, who have unmet financial need after exhausting all other forms of aid, automatically receive the scholarship without having to apply.

“That was the impetus for the program, to try to address the attrition of really good students who were leaving us for really bad reasons – not because they didn’t want to be there and not because they didn’t couldn’t be there academically but because they didn’t have the money,” said Timothy Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State.

The grants originally went to freshmen when the program started, but now the majority goes to seniors. Administrators made this change in 2014, hoping to maximize the impact of the program by bringing more students to the finish line so they can complete their studies and graduate in less time. In its first year, the program awarded 214 grants; more than 10,000 scholarships have been awarded since.

A recent report by research firm Ithaka S+R suggests that the micro-grants program helps students graduate in less time and with less debt on average.

“A program that helps students get through that final final hurdle and helps them graduate is important — and it’s the right thing to do,” said Daniel Rossman, Ithaka S+R Principal Investigator and co-author. of the report.

Rossman and the other authors of the report conducted two analyzes to assess the results of the program. One analysis compared students who received scholarships to those who did not. The other compared students with outstanding balances, who may or may not have received the scholarships, to students without those debts to support the first set of findings.

Analyzes found that the grants helped recipients graduate faster. Students who received a scholarship had significantly higher graduation rates than their peers within one term and three terms of receiving the funds, although the difference in graduation rates between recipients and non-recipients -beneficiaries has decreased over time.

Students who received the scholarships enrolled for 0.44 terms less than their peers on average. Scholarship recipients also accumulated an average of $3,700 less debt, including federal, state and institutional student loan debt. The report suggests this is likely because they had to pay less tuition. When examined separately, Pell Grant recipients and students from underrepresented backgrounds achieved similar results.

However, the results did not definitively show whether the scholarships helped students graduate who otherwise would not. In the report’s second analysis, there was no difference in graduation rates across the six terms between students with and without balances.

Even so, a faster path to graduation has major benefits for students, Rossman said. He noted that students not only take on less debt, but they can enter the workforce sooner and start paying off student debt faster.

Research shows that even small unpaid debts to colleges can have lasting consequences. A previous Ithaca S+R report as of 2020, an estimated 8.3 million students nationwide had outstanding balances in fiscal year 2018, and more than 1.4 million ended up with accounts in collection. Meanwhile, some institutions withhold transcripts from students with outstanding balances, preventing them from enrolling in courses or transferring to other institutions. An estimated 6.6 million students have blocked credits that they have earned but cannot access due to these debts, which can prevent them from continuing their education or finding a job.

A wave of colleges, particularly community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, have recently used federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay off outstanding student balances. Colleges have acted in response to job losses and financial hardship faced by students during the pandemic, which has led to crowds of students quitting.

Enrollment at Georgia State’s main campus in Atlanta, where the retention scholarship program was first implemented, has grown fairly steadily for more than a decade, a trend that continues despite the pandemic. Enrollment grew from 35,052 students in fall 2019 to 36,304 in fall 2020. However, Renick said the steady growth can likely be attributed to a range of factors, including federal COVID-19 relief funds. 19, successful academic counseling and the use of chatbots to engage students, among other factors.

Rossman thinks the findings of the Panther Retention Grants study have broader implications for other colleges and universities looking to develop or refine similar programs.

“I think the big takeaway is that retention or completion grants offer a promising solution to the problem of higher education affordability,” Rossman said. “The right design and strategic implementation of these types of programs can play an important role in helping students stay enrolled until graduation, especially in a post-pandemic world with huge hurdles. financial. I think it’s something that can be part of an institution’s toolkit to help students succeed.

Not everyone is so sure. Completion and retention scholarships, which provide students with small amounts to help them stay enrolled, have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, some higher education experts have raised concerns that completion scholarships may not reach students who need them most.

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University released the results of a randomized controlled trial in December 2021, which looked at the results of 11 college grant programs, not including Georgia State’s. . The report found “no evidence of positive impacts on educational outcomes”.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder and president of the Hope Center, said the Georgia state program has started a trend in higher education, but she fears that “completion scholarships are going to types of students who, despite financial difficulties, persisted towards the end and who would finish with or without the completion scholarships. The findings of Georgia State’s program report did not convince her otherwise.

She thinks scholarship dollars would generally be better spent on freshmen and sophomores, in part because low-income students from underrepresented backgrounds drop out at higher rates before their senior year compared to lower-income students. white students from wealthier households.

Renick said it’s important to rigorously evaluate completion scholarship programs, and he’s grateful for studies like the Hope Center, but he stressed that not all programs are alike. For example, he said some require onerous application processes. He believes the latest research on Panther retention scholarships demonstrates that these programs can save time and money for low-income students if carefully designed. He also noted that supports for students earlier in their studies are crucial, but so are programs that serve students at the end of their college career, especially in Georgia. The state’s merit-based HOPE scholarships only support students for four years, so working students who may take longer to graduate may find themselves short of funds. money.

“You have to test these things and figure out what works and what doesn’t,” he said of the retention and completion scholarship programs. “That’s how we improve, and that’s how we make gains in science and technology, and that’s what higher education and student success needs to do more of.”

Ryan H. Bowman