The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) was honored to partner with The Chronicle of Higher Education for its September 29, 2022 discussion on innovative financial aid for today's students. The panel surfaced the critical role that completion grants have come to play in educational equity for today's college students. Panelists included:
- Tim Renick, Executive Director, National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University
- Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere
- Sharon Perry Fantini, Vice Provost for Equity Access and Opportunity at Iowa State University
- Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network (NCAN)
- Tony Erwin, Principal Consultant at Blue Icon Advisors (NASFAA)
The Need for Completion Grants
Completion grants are an emerging financial strategy for helping under-resourced college seniors complete their degree. Dr. Renick explained that Georgia State was enrolling more Pell eligible students who needed to work, which extended their completion time beyond the four years allowed by the state scholarship program:
"We had perfectly qualified seniors walking away from the university close to the finish line. So in 2011, we began to pilot a program that requires no application on the student's part. We just put the money in their accounts to prevent them from stopping or dropping out for financial reasons. The first semester we supported 40 students. Now we're supporting between two and three thousand students every year."
Dr. Renick noted that financial aid programs have traditionally focused on larger grants for incoming or exceptional students, rather than $2,500 or less to students nearing the end of their degree program:
"What we're looking for are students who have unmet need, close to graduating, making good academic progress, and have exhausted their aid. Well, all four of those points we know. Only a subset of students will go through those bureaucratic steps. So it's critical that we say, 'We know which students need this help. Let's not wait till they stop out.'"
Identifying Students With Needs
While each $2,500 is a small line item in a university's budget, completion grants add up, and Dr. Fantini shared Iowa State's practice for identifying eligible students:
"Our students are meeting with a financial literacy counselor so they can have that deep conversation. Because our demographics have changed, we have students with a cultural component that is not going to allow them to feel comfortable having this delicate conversation, while other students are going to be adamant about, 'I'm not taking on more debt.' We have to assume that our students are unaware of our complicated FAFSA system. And we're going over EFC. In higher education, we throw these acronyms around, and we assume that our audience knows what we're talking about. So if we just take a step backwards and sit down with those students, we can talk about their expectations and their financial experiences. So, making sure you have the right person talking to the student is critical."
In some cases, students' questions and concerns can be addressed through chatbot conversations, an online shortcut that is potentially reassuring and time efficient. However, Mr. Erwin pointed out that student financial needs aren't a one-size-fits-all situation:
"A well-implemented chatbot or survey frees up the opportunity for the humans to interact in those cases where you need depth and a relationship to solve some of those problems. We've heard pretty consistently that students are tired of the assumptions about what their family situation is. That leaves behind many students whose families don't have any foundation in general finance, and puts a burden on the student to bring that back to their family and act as intermediary. And they ask us frequently, 'Can't the institution help bridge that gap? Can't they help meet my family where they are?' And that requires a ramping up of staffing, then the right opportunities for learning skills to have those conversations."
Finding the Funds
Panel members discussed several models for funding completion grants. Dr. Fantini spoke about how Iowa State obtained the resources through their athletics department:
"The commitment came directly from President Wintersteen. We typically do not tap into our foundation or alums. But understanding the students that we are trying to serve so that they have an opportunity to be successful, eventually will be part of your foundation and your alumni, the donors supported the creation of this program not only campus-wide, but in our individual colleges. Ultimately through this call for action, the athletic department contributed a million dollars over the next five years for completion grants. So Iowa State truly is working collectively to make sure the students are successful."
Dr. Renick said that a study by Boston Consulting Group on ROI for completion grants gave Georgia State a compelling argument for alumni donations:
"The most popular single program for donations was our completion grant program. There are a lot of alums who identify themselves in these students who are plugging away, trying to study, but frustrated by the fact that they're stopping out and re-enrolling. Our alumni association loves the fact that we've now given 19,000 of these grants out over the last seven or eight years, because these are 19,000 seniors who graduated more efficiently because Georgia State proactively reached out to them and helped them."
Mr. Erwin added that, in his previous work as an aid administrator, the institution's business partners were excellent sources for this category of funding:
"We would hear from our employer partners all the time about 'how fast can we get students deployable into our organizations?' And one of the things that I would say was, 'If you are thinking of funding some programs, think about completion grants, because that will speed up the works of getting these students finished and into your positions.'"
Barriers and Solutions
Innovative financial aid programs can be challenging to implement when no one knows what to expect. Even Dr. Williams, who was project director for the UIA's completion grants initiative, encountered surprises in her current role as director of Every Learner Everywhere:
"Students with the most financial need aren't always the students that need the completion grant. A lot of times, those students are covered with the existing financial aid. And so it's important to see what the data are showing you around where that need exists – that can inform how you design your program. Another thing that we've really got to pay attention to are transfer students and returning students, because they've already exhausted that financial aid. They fly under the radar when it comes to existing aid programs. The one thing that surprised me that was easier was that institutions are so eager and engaged in wanting to implement these programs, and don't always have the information. It's not for lack of good intent, it's just that the information is not always out there."
As CEO of NCAN, Ms. Cook spoke about the most important work that our sector needs to advance inside financial aid, and about much-needed outside supports for change:
"Within the sector, we need to focus on need-based aid. Federally, we advocate for doubling the Pell Grant to restore its purchasing power to its original intent. Statewide that's focusing on need first, not merit, that some states prioritize. It's politically popular, but to the detriment of students completing. And then just raising the investment that states make. Institutions should focus on need first and increasing investment where that's possible in the budget. Outside support takes political will to decide that this is a priority for equity and competitiveness. What do we need to change? We need to listen to student voice, appreciate the experiences and challenges that they're having, and look at the data to inform their affordability issues."
Mr. Erwin suggested removing the barriers to innovation in financial aid by broadening our definition of resources:
"It's not just money to distribute, but the capacity to build those systems to interact with students. Resources also include the development of financial aid professionals who have the capacity, interests, tools, and invitation from their institutions to participate in conversations about innovation. During the pandemic, you had this opportunity to start thinking differently. And now, unfortunately, you've got the reality of workloads in many institutions where those folks have had to constrict their thinking a bit. So I would say resources have to include the infrastructure and beyond."
Erasing the Completion Gap
During our conversation, Dr. Renick summarized the results of a just-completed study of Georgia State undergraduates between 2013 and 2021. In comparing completion and graduation rates for students that never had to stop out for a financial reason versus those that did, it was 70% to 20%. For seniors alone, the difference was 80% to 30%. The truly significant number was revealed by comparing this 50-point gap with students who received a completion grant:
"For an average grant of about a thousand dollars, the graduation rates for those students go right back up to 80%. So it completely fills the outcome gap. These students are not stopping out, because we proactively provide the money to keep them enrolled. Do you know of other uses of institutional aid where for a thousand dollars you can change the outcomes from a 30% graduation rate to an 80% graduation rate? You invest a little bit in these students, not only do they graduate at much higher rates, but the institution generates more revenue by holding onto these students. It's in effect the fiscally selfish thing to do; at the same time, it's the morally right thing to do."
Note: This blog was adapted from a panel discussion hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education on 9/29/22. Co-hosts were the Chronicle's Assistant Managing Editor Ian Wilhelm and the UIA's CEO Bridget Burns. We provide a transcript of the full conversation if you would like to learn more. We at the UIA also invite you to download our Completion Grants Playbook.