Access to postsecondary education can transform a student’s life. But sometimes, especially for the 42 percent of students paying for college and living costs on their own, a small financial setback can make paying a tuition or housing bill just out of reach and threaten years of educational progress.
Completion grants are a solution to this problem. Also known as retention grants or “gap funding,” they are a recent innovation in student financial aid: small but meaningful financial aid awards for students who have made substantial progress in their degree programs but face financial barriers to graduation.
Completion grants are a relatively small and cost-effective form of financial aid. At Georgia State University (GSU), a pioneer of this approach, the average Panther Retention Grant is 900 dollars. Nine out of 10 recipients were still enrolled a year later. When GSU started the program in 2011, university administrators found they were losing students who were academically on track but running out of financial aid. Federal Pell Grants, for students from families with low incomes, max out at six years of funding, and a significant share of students with HOPE Scholarships lose them. Using a similar approach earlier in 2021, Governor Kemp committed $5 million in federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds to help students with unmet financial need pay their college bills.
What makes completion grants unique is that unlike other financial aid, students do not apply to receive them. In contrast to the notoriously long federal financial aid process, college administrators use existing records on financial need and degree progress to identify students and notify them they have been chosen for the grant. This allows students to skip filling out forms with information that colleges already have.
Ridge Hudson, a senior English major at GSU, received a completion grant. Hudson, the first in his family to go to college, started at Valdosta State University. He says, “I had no type of guide.” Overwhelmed and suffering from anxiety and depression, he moved back to his hometown of Sylvania, population 2,463, to work and save up. He enrolled in East Georgia State College, then transferred to Georgia Southern University. Financial and mental health challenges struck again, and he left school a second time. Undeterred, Ridge moved to Atlanta and enrolled in Perimeter College – Georgia State University in Clarkston before transferring to the Atlanta campus. By this time, he had exhausted his Pell Grant eligibility. He worked two jobs and supported himself financially. He received the Panther Retention Grant to clear a remaining balance on his account. “It was a blessing to me,” he says. “It’s been a major factor in how far I’ve gone.”
To learn more about variations in completion grants, researchers at Temple University and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities examined seven universities, including GSU. Six-year graduation rates range from 32 to 62 percent at these schools in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.
Schools differ in their eligibility criteria, processes, rules and awarding procedures. Overall, researchers found three key variations:
- Automatic grant awards versus requiring a response from students
- Requiring certain activities to receive the grant
- Using a “degree audit,” a full assessment of courses required to complete a degree in a specific major, versus a credit-hour threshold to determine progress towards graduation
Variations in Completion Grants
Eligibility criteria. Administrators sometimes find it difficult to identify students who are “near completion,” and procedures vary among schools. Counting credit hours is one approach. Some schools go further to account for specific academic requirements. Specialized “degree audit” software can assist this process, but administrators say the software is often flawed. Measuring financial need also varies. When deciding who is eligible, schools look at varied levels of unmet need, Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or having a balance on a student account. Some colleges require students to be receiving Pell, while others, like GSU, allow students with unmet need regardless of Pell receipt.
Rules. Some colleges and universities allow completion grants to apply towards account balances for tuition and fees only, while others allow grants to be used on additional education expenses including housing, books or emergency needs. Panther Retention Grants can only be applied to account balances for tuition and fees.
Awarding procedures. Though students did not need to apply for completion grants, some schools require students to respond to an email to receive the funds, while others automatically package the grants into students’ financial aid packages. After receiving the grant, some colleges require students to engage in additional activities to continue receipt, like meeting with a student success coach or advisor or completing a financial literacy or career planning exercise. At GSU, students must acknowledge the award, and afterward complete a financial literacy training.
For college or university staff, implementation considerations include communicating with students, confirming eligibility and enforcing requirements. Best practices include frequent communication with students and developing personal relationships that help them stay on the path toward graduation.
The study offers the following recommendations for completion grants that are the most effective, most equitable and with the lowest administrative burden:
- A variable grant amount within a limited range (ex: $1,000-2,000)
- Multiple eligibility criteria chosen to maximize automation
- A single assessment for eligibility
- Automatically awarding grants with encouragement to do activities
Ultimately, completion grants, unlike other scholarships and grants, are focused on promoting graduation. Hudson says, “When I moved [to Atlanta], my GPA was below a 2.0. I was discouraged… [Georgia State] accepted me and allowed me to prove that I could do it.” With a community, an on-campus job and resources focused on his success, he achieved his first 4.0 semester. He says, “My time has been transformative. If I fall down, I get back up and keep going. I have that mindset. You don’t wallow, you don’t quit, you don’t drop. You get up and keep going.”