When a Few Bucks Can Get Students to the Finish Line

Kalif Robinson on the campus of Georgia State University in Atlanta. CreditKevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Kalif Robinson is a star at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He’s a straight-A senior, majoring in economics and minoring in Arabic. In the fall he’ll start a two-year Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, studying foreign affairs in Washington, training to be a diplomat.

It nearly didn’t happen. Robinson has stitched together his Georgia State tuition and fees with loans, a federal Pell grant, Georgia’s Hope Scholarship and two jobs. He’s worked nearly full time since his freshman year; today he’s a waiter and works at the campus advising center. His father is a musician and music teacher. “More often than not, I’ve had to give my parents money,” he said.

At the end of his sophomore year, Robinson registered for an intensive summer course in Arabic, a class not offered in the fall. “I needed it that summer,” he said, because he was going abroad to an Arabic-speaking country the following summer and could not wait until the spring term to begin studying the language. But his financial aid didn’t cover summer courses, and this one was $890. He went to his adviser. “I do not have any money,” he said. “Is there anything the school can do?”

There was: a Panther Retention Grant. Named after Georgia State’s mascot, the program offers students an immediate few hundred dollars, sometimes as little as $300, without bureaucracy. Most recipients are seniors whose financial aid has run out. For many, the grant gets them over the finish line, instead of being left just short of graduation — saddled with debt but denied the degree that could have helped pay it down.

Robinson was not a senior and was not dropping out. But the grant saved his course of study.

Let’s contemplate how unusual this is. Georgia State was the first school to use these grants, in 2012. Now perhaps a dozen schools use them.

The assumption behind them is also fairly new: that a university can and should do things to help students graduate. Until 10 or 15 years ago, American universities and colleges paid a lot of attention to recruiting students, and shockingly little attention to helping them succeed while there.

“Follow the dollars,” said Danette Howard, chief strategy officer and senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation, which, along with the Gates Foundation, has a major influence on this issue. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation is a donor to the Solutions Journalism Network.) “A big part of it is how institutions are funded,” said Howard. “Public universities receive resources based on how many students are enrolled. And when students are leaving, the focus is on replacing those students.”

Only in 2000 did the government begin requiring community colleges to submit graduation rates in order to receive federal financial aid. That requirement was applied to four-year colleges in 2003. “It wasn’t important enough before that for the Department of Education to include it in their eligibility criteria,” said Thomas Bailey, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

And those rates were appalling. “All of sudden a publication says that this college has a 20 percent graduation rate,” said Bailey. “Well, that seems pretty low.”

It actually is unfairly low, because the official graduation rate measures how many full-time first-year students complete their degree in six years at that same institution. Since more than one-third of students transfer to another school, leaving them out is a big omission.

Even so, the rates were indefensible. Some states began to include graduation rates in their funding formulas for public universities; today, about seven do this seriously, said Howard. That gives schools a direct incentive to help students succeed.

Schools are also responding to other economic pressures. For elite universities, it makes sense to let students drop out; plenty of others await those spots. But that’s no longer true for most schools. College and university enrollment is down for the fifth year in a row.

Another factor has been much slower to change: That is a fatalism on the part of colleges and universities about low-income students, minorities and students who are the first college-goers in their families. These students tend to emerge from weaker high schools and are less academically prepared. They have less family and social support than they need in college. They sometimes feel they don’t belong.

But by far most important, they lack money. In the book “Paying the Price,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple University, relates studying 3,000 college students and finding that even with financial aid, the cost of college derailed them over and over. Some even went hungry or became homeless.

Except at some institutions, one of which is Georgia State. In 2008, Georgia was hit hard by the recession, and over the next four years the school lost $40 million in state money, said Renick. The student body has changed — becoming poorer, more first-generation and less prepared. SAT scores dropped. Today, 80 percent of Georgia State’s students are low income, minority or first-generation — or all three.

That’s almost always a recipe for more dropouts. But here’s what happened at Georgia State: Ten years ago, 31 percent of white students graduated. Now 50 percent do. Ten years ago, 26 percent of African-American students graduated. Now 56 percent do. Ten years ago, 22 percent of Latino students graduated. Now 55 percent do. The school leads the nation in eliminating the usual disparities between white and minority rates. This isn’t just good for students, it’s been the only counter to the state funding cuts, Renick said. Students in school pay tuition and bring in aid money. Students who drop out don’t.

There is no evidence that Georgia State lowered standards to achieve the higher graduation rates. “Graduation requirements have gotten a little more rigorous,” said Renick. The school has moved away from traditional remedial classes, instead drawing less-prepared students into regular classes with extra tutoring, which has produced huge increases in retention rates. It has changed math instruction, moving to a flipped model (watch lectures outside class on video, do problems in class) that has helped many more students do well. The fastest-growing majors — computer science and biology — are tough ones, said Renick. And record numbers of minority students have been getting science, math and tech degrees each year.

Panther Retention Grants originated after Mark Becker, the university’s president, gave the scholarship fund a personal donation of $40,000 in 2011. “Do something different with it,” he said.

Many colleges have small pots of money to help students in emergencies such as eviction from their homes. Retention Grants, by contrast, focus on students who are just short of the finish line.

As with all of Georgia State’s new programs, the idea emerged from a big push to use data to measure everything and allow the school to intervene rapidly with students.

The data showed that many students got to their senior year (often a little late) on track to graduate, but couldn’t scrape together the money to finish.

“We were dropping a thousand students a semester because they couldn’t cover tuition and fees,” said Renick. Georgia State was graduating about 4,500 students a year, so the dropouts were significant. “Some were thousands short, but others needed just a few hundred dollars,” according to Renick. For some, $300 would have been enough.

The first semester, the school chose 40 students who needed a little bit of money and deposited it in their school account. Now Georgia State gives out about 2,000 such grants each year, more than any other school. The grants average $900. Most, but not all, go to seniors. (Grantees must also attend financial counseling.) “It turns 70 percent of them into immediate graduates,” said Renick.

The grants are easy on Georgia State’s balance sheets, since they not only retain the students, but also return all of the outlay in the form of payments to the school. By keeping each student, the university also continues collecting their tuition, fees and aid, which in the 2012-13 academic year averaged $3,000 per semester for each student.

Does that mean the grants work? Not so fast. “We don’t know yet whether they’re betting on winners who would have already completed, or whether they’re changing the odds,” said Goldrick-Rab.

So she and two university associations, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities are starting research. The consortium first helped 10 urban universities start or expand retention grant programs. Shari Garmise, the executive director of the urban universities coalition, said that so far, every single recipient has stayed in school or graduated. Next up are randomized control trials at several of the universities.

Garmise said that for some schools, the study opens a larger issue: Is financial aid just for giving students access to college? Or can it be used to help them complete it? “We have a problem to solve,” she said. “The deeper question is how do we rethink financial aid as part of the total student journey.”

In my next column, I’ll look at another strategy Georgia State and many other schools are using to help students graduate. Students say they want flexibility and choices, more part-time options, night classes. But according to this strategy, what will actually help them graduate is exactly the opposite.

Correction: March 14, 2017
An earlier version of this essay misidentified, in one instance, the name of the university that is its focus. It is Georgia State University, not Georgia Tech.

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