How to finish in four: Supporting on-time graduation for low-income students

By Tania Nguyen

SAP: Well intentioned, but flawed

Tying need-based aid to satisfactory academic progress (SAP) is an industry-wide practice, but a counterproductive one. Far too often, the students who require financial assistance are also the least likely to graduate in four years. While requiring a GPA of 2.0 and a 12 credit hour load allows most students to maintain their aid, setting such low expectations can inadvertently encourage behaviors that result in delayed time-to-degree and increased debt loads.

Other existing financial aid programs—merit scholarships and graduation rebates—encourage high GPA outcomes or on-time completion, but fail to incent the incremental behaviors a student would need to achieve those benchmarks. Additionally, these scholarships typically reward existing high-achievers and miss those who are more financially—and potentially academically—vulnerable.

Newer aid structures, like performance-based scholarships, are need-based grants designed to boost advisor contact and academic achievement for the most financially vulnerable. These scholarships only incent some of the behaviors that students need in order to achieve success, however.

How EMs leverage aid dollars to reduce the risk of financial attrition and improve student success

With population growth concentrated in the lowest-income segments, and the estimated national six-year graduation rate for Pell grant recipients trailing non-Pell students by 13 percentage points , it is imperative for both mission and revenue purposes that institutions help guide vulnerable students toward degree attainment.

Temple University has developed an innovative approach to close the achievement gap between its low- and high-income students.

Promoting persistence, reducing working hours

In 2014, Temple designed the "Fly in 4" initiative, an enhanced performance-based scholarship program for low-income students. It was designed to both promote the behaviors associated with success and reduce students' reliance on employment earnings. Students at Temple were working more than 15 hours a week at off-campus jobs—a well-known predictor of attrition and delayed graduation.

The Fly in 4 model part I: The pledge

At the core of Fly in 4 is a student pledge to follow four key success behaviors:

1. Complete at least 30 credits per year
2. Meet priority course registration deadlines
3. Meet with academic advisors every term
4. Set and follow a four-year degree plan

All admitted students are encouraged to take the pledge through an aggressive marketing campaign managed by admissions and orientation staff. Most recruitment into the program occurs during yield events and orientation. For the entering class of 2014, the first year of the program, 88% of freshmen took the pledge.

The Fly in 4 model part II: The targeted grant

Temple financial aid administrators targeted $4,000 grants, the estimated earnings from a part-time job, to 500 of their highest-need students. These students must agree to a key addition to their pledge—to limit the number of hours they work during the school year. The grants are renewable for four years, so long as recipients observe the pledge criteria.

Students not qualifying for the grant do not have an explicit financial incentive for following the pledge. However, experiments at the University of Hawaii suggest that simply marketing good academic behaviors encourages adoption of those behaviors; Hawaii's "15 to Finish" marketing program increased the share of students taking at least 15 credits per term from 21% to 25% in two years.

Overview of Temple University's Fly in 4 Program

Overview of Temple University's Fly in 4 Program

Promising results

By linking "success behaviors" to aid dollars and keeping a close eye on students through tracking and advising, the fall-to-spring retention rate was 5% higher for those receiving the grant and taking the pledge versus non-participants with similar need. New reports indicate that compared to the previous cohort, 600 more sophomores are on track to graduate in four years. After a successful first year, Temple has continued the program with 93% of the 2015 entering class taking the pledge.

Initial results from the Fly in 4 program

Initial results from the Fly in 4 program

Implementation requires cross-campus collaboration

For institutions interested in implementing similar grant programs, the operational components of the Fly in 4 initiative span the campus—and the student lifecycle:

  • Admissions/marketing: Awareness of the pledge starts before a student steps on campus. Students are urged to pledge during yield events and orientation.
  • Financial aid: At Temple, the number of financially eligible pledge takers exceeded the number of available grants, so financial aid administrators had to determine the students with the greatest financial gaps.
  • Robust advising: Every term, proactive advisors ensure that students are on-pace and registering during the priority period.
  • Tracking: To enforce the pledge for grant holders, Institutional Research must track the progress of student behavior checkpoints from freshman to senior year.
  • Pre-graduation: Degree audits prior to entering senior year pinpoint any missing requirements. If a student observed the pledge, but failed to graduate in four years, he or she can take additional courses for free.

By mobilizing partnerships in enrollment management, academic affairs, and institutional research, Temple University's Fly in 4 performance-based scholarship program addresses a number of the key root causes for lagging completion rates amongst low-income students: financial attrition, working excessive hours in off-campus jobs, and insufficient guidance on academic progress.

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