4 Tips for Designing Effective Completion Grants

4 Tips for Designing Effective Completion Grants

Over the past three years, UIA campuses have awarded over $3 million in completion grants to more than 4,000 low-income students. If you’re considering implementing new types of just-in-time financial aid (such as completion grants, retention grants, or emergency aid) at your institution, here are four key lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Start by locating need(s).Pinpoint when students are most likely to stop out for financial reasons. When do students tend to max out loans, run out of aid, encounter more limited access to scholarships, or experience other barriers your program is intended to address? Need won’t look the same on every campus. Some of our campuses found their students showed more need earlier, as sophomores and juniors, or that award sizes needed to be larger or smaller because of registration holds, drop for nonpayment policies, or other aid programs in place. Identify the need(s) that are specific to your campus.

Set parameters specific to your context.After you identify when need is most likely to occur and how much of a financial barrier is likely to impede student progress, determine what grant parameters will help you support students most in need. We began with five criteria that looked the same for every campus - but levels of financial need and debt preferences varied by student body. Set your grant sizes, account balance thresholds, or other parameters accordingly.

Pay attention to timing.There may not be a single “right” point to award for every campus. Participating UIA campuses could determine when and how to distribute grants, and many adapted their timing throughout implementation. Some started disbursing at a late date, right before add/drop, but found it was too late to have an impact and moved up subsequent disbursements. Campuses found that students often paid at the last minute, but in some cases used payment methods with longer-term consequences (such as opening new high-interest credit cards or starting additional jobs). To prevent these decisions, campuses generally opted for an earlier cutoff date rather than waiting for students to find other solutions.

Build a cross-functional team.Develop a timeline and communication cadence for each term so you can identify recipients, distribute awards, send surveys (we asked recipients about their experiences and the grant impact), and report outcome data. UIA institutions connected financial aid, the registrar, student accounts, advising offices, and others in order to identify students meeting parameters and administer grants. It’s important to map out up front who needs to be involved, and how. Several campuses even engaged staff in making phone calls to students so they could share news of the grant personally. Completion grants can really break down silos! But, as we learned with timing, make sure your process is adaptable as you learn what works best.

Lessons for the COVID Crisis


In 2020, it turned out that implementing completion grants helped UIA institutions prepare to distribute COVID emergency aid as well. In late July, we’ll be featuring a live interview on emergency aid with campus representatives involved in completion grants, and we’ll share a brief summary outlining recommendations. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to join us live or view later. Stay tuned for our final completion grants playbook, scheduled for release on our website at the end of the project in December.


What Are the UIA’s Completion Grants?


For the past three years, the UIA has been implementing a collaborative completion grant initiative generously funded by Ascendium Education Group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Thanks to their support, we’ve awarded over $3 million in completion grants to 4,000 low-income students nearing graduation, but facing financial hurdles and account balances that prevent their registration for remaining classes.

To be eligible for a UIA completion grant, undergraduate students need to meet five parameters:

  • Senior status, within 2 semesters of graduation;
  • Good academic standing, as defined by the institution;
  • Estimated Family Contribution of $7,000 or below;
  • Have exhausted all forms of available aid, including federal loans;
  • Show an unpaid account balance such that a $1,000 microgrant would allow them to register or avoid drop for nonpayment.

Of 4,000 recipients to date, 85% remain enrolled or have graduated within 2 semesters. This project has resulted in campus-level changes to drop for nonpayment policies and registration holds (removing unnecessary barriers to continued progress); campus efforts to centralize emergency aid information and application materials; increased coordination across student success units to identify and support students in need, and additional campus fundraising for completion grant resources.

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