Graduation rates might be increased by distributing small grants

Schools see success from 'last-dollar' financial aid to seniors

Spreading financial aid amongst students who are only a few hundred dollars short of tuition and fees can help colleges and universities boost retention and degree-attainment, the Wall Street Journal reports.

"When you're dealing with families whose annual household income is $22,000, then $300 might as well be $3,000 or $30,000," says Timothy Renick, Georgia State University (GSU) VP for enrollment services.

As part of a nationwide push to increase degree-attainment rates, a group of northeastern Ohio colleges helped local residents earn their diplomas by giving small scholarships to students who were ready to drop out because they could not afford costs such as transportation, books, or class fees. Following the initiative, the region's degree attainment rate jumped from 28.9% in 2009 to 31.7% in 2013.

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"We're focused on the end of the pipeline," says Michael Sherman, senior VP, provost, and COO at University of Akron, one of the participating schools. 

This "last-dollar" grants approach is rare, says Wall Street Journal's Melissa Korn. A majority of schools focus financial aid efforts on first-year students' significant bills. Instead, from 2011 to 2013, Akron awarded small grants to 75 students for costs such as a $100 bus pass or $350 textbook. In the first year, 19 of the original 23 recipients graduated within six months.

In the surrounding metropolitan area, a region with about 700,000 people, degree-attainment share increased by 20%. That gain helped Akron win the $1 million Talent Dividend Prize, which it will share with other program participants Kent State University and Hiram College.

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Following the success of the pilot program, Akron doubled the number of recipients to 167 and upped its average grant to $1,265 for the 2013-2014 academic year. After receiving the aid, 60% of those students graduated within two terms, and only a few failed to enroll the following semester.

Other schools have experienced similar success. In 2011, GSU introduced a grant to aid students short on tuition payments. Since then, about 3,700 students received scholarships averaging $900, and 70% of senior recipients graduate within two semesters (Korn, Wall Street Journal, 10/29).

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