When $300 stands between a student and graduation

Increasing graduation rates can sometimes be solved through money, not just academic achievement

Imagine you're a 21-year-old nearing your last semester of college. 

You've worked incredibly hard over the last three and half years. You're so close to graduation that they have nearly printed your diploma.

You just have one problem: you've exhausted all of your financial aid. You tell the bursar that a mere $300 is all you need to get through—to no avail.

Coming from a low-income family, being a first-generation college student, or being unprepared academically can all be factors that contribute to a student not graduating within six years. At Georgia State University (GSU), 80% of students fall into one or all of these categories. GSU has gained considerable attention in recent years for developing interventions to increase graduation rates amongst its most vulnerable student populations.

For example, some students face situations where their ability to continue their degree progress—or graduate—hinges on a comparatively small amount of money.  Tina Rosenberg recently wrote about GSU's solution to this problem for the New York Times. 

Also see: How to use financial aid to promote student success

To help these students, GSU created an emergency fund called the Panther Retention Grant, which gives small to medium amounts of money to students who need it to complete a semester and who might otherwise drop out of school entirely.

The average grant given out is $900, and the school awards about 2,000 of them per year. Through the program and other student support strategies, "the school leads the nation in eliminating the usual disparities between white and minority rates," Rosenberg reports. And these so-called microgrants are spreading to more institutions.

Read more about how GSU used data-driven interventions to recapture $3M in tuition revenue

"Balance grants, like GSU's Panther Retention Grant, can be superior to more traditional emergency funds because they do not require students to apply to receive the funds," says John Nelson, an EAB expert on financial aid. "In the case of GSU, the Panther Retention Grants better reach their most vulnerable students and better leverage institutional funds to promote persistence in a cost-effective way."

While GSU has been pleased with the results of the program, one remaining open question is to what degree microgrants actually get students past the finish line en masse.

"We don't know yet whether they're betting on winners who would have already completed, or whether they're changing the odds," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple University, who wrote about the issue in her book, Paying the Price (Rosenberg, New York Times, 5/14).

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