Completion Grants and Emergency Aid: Building a Financial Aid Infrastructure to Bolster Student Success

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

For many students the final hurdle to completing their academic program stems from unforeseen financial challenges that can derail their degree completion — but with emergency aid, institutions are looking to stem the tide of these financial pitfalls.

In a virtual forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of higher education and financial aid experts — including Blue Icon Advisors Principal Consultant Tony Erwin — provided listeners with a number of case studies, best practices, and detailed guides to prevent students from stopping out of their program of choice.

The discussion was prompted by a host of concerning data trends, including a 2021 survey conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which found 42% of adults aged 20-34 dropped out of college for financial reasons.

Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success, walked participants through a recent longitudinal experiment involving completion grants and how the funding was used to keep students on track to graduate.

By using institutional data, the financial aid office at Georgia State University was able to identify students who had exhausted their aid, and were close to graduating, which allowed the office to make automatic, targeted awards to ensure the students did not stop out of their program.

A critical component of the aid was to ensure the award process remained automated and occurred before the student stopped out.

Renick’s study, conducted from 2013-21, looked into college completion success rates at Georgia State and offered some noteworthy findings on the implications of stopping out.

According to Renick, for students who did not have to stop out of their program, the rate of graduations was 70%, while the rate for those who experienced a stop-out due to financial reasons plummeted to 20%. For students who reached senior standing, over 80% who did not stop out completed their degree, while a little under 30% of students who stopped out were able to graduate.

During this period the school, looking to narrow this outcome gap, began to implement completion grants to students in their senior year and largely achieved its goal with targeted investments.

“For an average grant of about $1,000, the graduation rates for those students goes right back up to 80%,” Renick said. “So it doesn’t partially fill the outcome gap — it completely fills the outcome gap.”

In the world of financial aid, the use of emergency grants is nothing new, but amid the pandemic, many schools were forced to find innovative ways to ensure their students remained in school.

Blue Icon’s Erwin explained that for many institutions, the biggest barriers to implementing programs like automated emergency grants are a lack of broadly defined resources — which include the ability to build capacity, development of the professionals who have interest and tools to participate in innovation, as well as the institutional bandwidth to try new things.

Erwin also said it was important for institutions to incorporate student voices into the aid process and that by narrowing communication gaps between students and families around higher education financing, schools could better engage students in pursuing their higher education goals.


Publication Date: 9/30/2022

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