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In the Nation's Interest

Helping More Students Complete College: The Role of Emergency Aid

This election season has brought much attention – at least among the Democrats – to increasing college enrollment.  Proposals have ranged from making community college loan-free to making it completely free.  But we know that simply getting more people started in college has little impact, if they fail to earn a degree or certificate.  It’s completion – not enrollment – we should care about, especially when it comes to four-year degrees. [1]

Over two thirds of young Americans (68.4%) now enroll directly in college after high school, but only 59% of those enrolling in four-year colleges complete their degree within six years.  And among those enrolling in two-year colleges, the completion rate is much worse: only 29% complete their degree within three years. [2]   Combine these enrollment and completion rates, and it means that in 2014 roughly a third (34.0%) of Americans ages 25-29 had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Completion rates are worse for disadvantaged students.  There are many reasons for this, including the fact that students from less-advantaged backgrounds tend to be less academically prepared.  But as the chart below shows, even among students with generally equal levels of academic readiness, the most economically disadvantaged students tend to complete college at much lower rates than those from the highest income families.  For example, among high school sophomores whose math scores were in the top quartile in 2002, those who came from families in the highest income group were almost twice as likely (74%) to have completed a bachelor’s degree 10 years later compared to those in the lowest income group – only 41% of whom had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2012.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2015

And this isn’t only because young people from lower income families are less likely to enroll in college for financial or other reasons.  As the next chart shows, even among those enrolled in a 4-year college in 2006, those coming from the most disadvantaged families were only about two thirds as likely to have completed their degree 6 years later compared to those coming from the highest income families (a 50% completion rate for the most disadvantaged compared to a 77% completion rate for those from the highest income families).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2015

What is it that’s preventing even academically qualified low-income students from completing their degrees at rates comparable to their more well-to-do peers?  And more importantly, what can we do to help these students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Why Low-Income College Students Are Less Likely to Finish

Data like those in the first chart have led researchers to conclude that it’s not just less adequate academic preparation that explains the college completion gap.  Nor is simply offering more financial aid in the form of reduced tuition and loans enough to completely close the gap, though it does increase college enrollment, persistence, and completion rates. [3]   Even with adequate academic preparation and relatively generous financial aid, it appears that students from less-advantaged backgrounds drop out of college at higher rates.

Part of this may be due to the fact that even with financial aid, low-income students spend more hours working paid jobs in order to make ends meet, compared to their more affluent peers.  Similarly, many low-income students may be older, non-traditional students – sometimes with children of their own – who require scheduling flexibility to meet all their obligations.  In general, low-income and non-traditional students may be juggling more complicated lives – and  doing so with fewer financial and other resources to get through the rough spots.

Another factor may be the so-called “college mismatch”: that is, the pattern of low-income students applying to and enrolling in less-selective colleges than they are qualified for.  Typically, these less-selective colleges have lower completion rates than more-selective colleges, so low-income students might graduate at higher rates if they enrolled in schools to which they were better matched. [4]   Researchers are experimenting with encouraging high-achieving, low-income students to apply to more selective colleges through better information and simplified application processes.

Another contributor to higher college dropout rates for low-income students may be simply less familiarity and “cultural competence” with college.  Low-income students often come from the first generation in their families to attend college, whereas more economically advantaged students typically have at least one parent or other adult in their lives with a college degree.  These “native guides” can help the student handle and find assistance dealing with the common crises that arise during college – such as a failed midterm or difficulties fitting in.  In the face of such setbacks, students lacking a family culture of college attendance may be more likely to simply decide that they’re not “college material” and drop out.  College coaching has arisen to help students with some of these issues, and initial indications are that certain programs can be effective.

But in addition to all these factors – less rigorous academic preparation, the high cost of tuition, under- (or over-)matching, and the cultural challenges facing “first-generation” students – it also appears that relatively small financial shortfalls can derail low-income students.  It is these challenges that emergency aid targets.

The Importance of Emergency Aid

“If I was going to do one thing to improve college success for low-income students and their families, it would be a well-implemented, properly-staffed emergency aid program,” Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab told me in a recent conversation.  For over seven years, Dr. Goldrick-Rab, director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin, has been studying the challenges that low-income and “first-generation” students face in completing college – findings that will be published on September 1, 2016, in her forthcoming book, Paying the Price: College Costs and the Betrayal of the American Dream.

Emergency aid programs are programs that provide small cash grants to low-income students to cover unexpected crises, expenses, or shortfalls that might otherwise cause the student to drop out.

The Panther Retention Grant program at Georgia State University (GSU) is one such program.  Started in 2011 with a $40,000 donation from GSU President Mark Becker and his wife, the program has since provided over 4,287 grants to students with an average value of approximately $900.  The university’s data system proactively flags low-income students who are about to be dropped from enrollment due to nonpayment of tuition, and then prioritizes grants to those who are closest to graduation and who have the smallest unpaid balance.  Students who receive grants must meet with an academic adviser (to ensure they’re on the shortest path to their degree) and complete online financial literacy training.

There has not been a formal evaluation of the program, but between 2011 and 2013, GSU’s overall completion rate rose from 47% to 53%.  Graduation rates for low-income, African-American, and Latino students at the school have come to match those of white and higher-income students.

The Dreamkeepers program of Scholarship America is another example of an emergency aid program, in this case targeted at students at community colleges.  Dreamkeepers works with 41 affiliated two-year colleges to provide emergency grants to students to keep them in school.  In 2014 the program helped 1,545 students with grants averaging $445.

Finally, Finish Line at the University of Memphis is another example of a program that helps eligible students complete their degrees at relatively low cost.  The University of Memphis is a public four-year institution that enrolls approximately 17,000 undergraduates.  Following changes to federal student aid rules in 2012 that limited students to six years of Pell Grants, the University of Memphis instituted Finish Line to help non-traditional students who were affected by the change.

To be eligible for the program, students had to have been previously enrolled in the University of Memphis, be within one year of graduation, have a grade point average of at least 2.0, have exhausted their federal student aid, and have dropped out for at least one semester.

Finish Line helps these students by reducing or eliminating barriers to graduation; making use of innovative, low-cost alternatives to traditional instruction; and providing financial assistance as necessary.  Some of the innovative practices include use of online courses and the opportunity to earn academic credit by exam.

Since being launched in the fall of 2013, 123 Finish Line students have graduated from the University of Memphis at an average cost of $1,649.  Over two thirds (68%) of the beneficiaries were women, with an average age of 36.

Few, if any, emergency aid programs have been rigorously evaluated to assess their impact, [5]  but they appear promising.  Efforts are underway to conduct the high-quality evaluations necessary to determine – and improve – the effectiveness of these types of programs.  These are initiatives worth evaluating and – the meantime – supporting.


[1] Interestingly, recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows relatively little difference in median weekly earnings in 2014 between those with “some college” versus those who had completed associate’s (“2-year”) degrees -- $792 for someone with an associate’s degree compared to $741 for someone with “some college” but no degree.  However, unemployment rates were lower for those with associate’s degree (4.5%) than those who only had some college, whose unemployment rate of 6.0% matched that of those who did not pursue education beyond high school.

[2] But note that this 29% completion rate most likely does not take into account students who begin their college experience at a community college and then transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.  These students are not adequately tracked in current databases which rely on reporting from each educational institution.

[3] See Timothy Bartik et al., “The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on college enrollment, persistence, and completion,” July 2015; and Joshua Angrist et al., “Leveling Up: Early Results from a Randomized Evaluation of Post-secondary Aid,” December 2014.

[4] Many factors – including the socio-economic backgrounds of the student body – may be driving the higher completion rates at more selective colleges, so one can’t definitely conclude that if a lower-income student enrolled in a more-selective school, then he or she would be more likely to graduate.  However, it is possible.  And consistent with the theory that enrolling in more-selective colleges will boost low-income students’ graduation rates is the fact that more-selective schools typically have more extensive support services and resources, which might help low-income students surmount the hurdles they face.

[5] “Rigorous” impact evaluations are ones whose evaluation design allows one to establish whether the program in question actually caused the observed impacts.  Rigorous impact evaluations are either well-implemented experiments that include a randomly assigned “intervention” and comparison group, or in some cases, well-designed “quasi-experiments” that lack random assignment but use a statistically matched comparison group.