The difference $900 can make in college graduation rates

At the start of each semester, the financial aid money appeared in Sana Ahmed Malik’s account. The federal and state funds typically covered the cost of tuition, with a little left over for books and living expenses. But the fall of her fourth year at Georgia State University, something wasn’t right.

“I kept refreshing my account over and over because I was thinking ‘when is my refund going to show up?’”

graduation-gapWhen her account did update, instead of a surplus, Malik had an outstanding balance.

Adding a second major in management to her original marketing major had stretched Malik’s college career past the 127-credit-hour limit on the Georgia HOPE scholarship that had, until then, covered more than 80 percent of her tuition.

“That’s when I completely freaked out, because I didn’t know what to do,” she said. Malik had always worked while in school to pay rent. It simply wasn’t enough to cover tuition.

Her remaining tuition was paid with a federal Pell Grant, which go to students from households with high financial need. More than 75 percent of the grants do to students whose families earn less than $40,000 a year. Malik had nowhere to turn to cover the shortfall.

Some semesters, nearly 1,000 Georgia State students like Malik — students in good academic standing and on track to graduate — faced this same problem: an outstanding tuition balance, usually less than $1,500 but too expensive for these students to cover, according to Timothy Renick, vice president of student success and enrollment management at Georgia State University.

“The state of Georgia has fairly harsh rules about how we treat students who haven’t paid full tuition and fees,” he said. “The attorney general says if they haven’t paid full tuition and fees, we have to drop them from their courses.”

And that’s exactly what happened to most of those students on the first Friday of classes each semester. Until 2011. That’s when the university’s president, Mark Becker, and his wife made a $40,000 donation for scholarships. The Beckers didn’t want the money to flow into an existing program; they wanted it to be used for something different.

It became the seed funding for Georgia State’s Panther Retention Grants, which Malik learned about when she went to the Scholarship Resource Center on campus hoping to find a solution to her sudden tuition problem.

Their tracking and intensive academic advising of students meant university staff knew exactly what to do with that the Beckers’ donation.

“These students are academically eligible and ready to go,” said Allison Calhoun-Brown, assistant vice president for student retention at Georgia State. “They have the classes that they need, they’ve been advised and have everything it takes to be ready to move forward. Except they have a small gap in ability to pay, and so they’re basically out. Having full knowledge of that, we knew that small grants could make a huge difference.”

In fall 2011, advisors began making phone calls to the students being dropped for nonpayment. They started with students closest to graduation and those with the smallest unpaid tuition balances. They verified that these students met the criteria of unmet financial need (a federally-defined term). And they told them to keep showing up for class; their remaining tuition bill would be paid off. The calls continued until the money ran out.

“Students hung up on us,” Calhoun-Brown said. “They didn’t believe we were calling from the university, and we were here to help.”

If Malik hadn’t gone looking on her own for a solution in the scholarship center, she would likely have received such a phone call last fall.

“It’s a tremendous burden when you have to worry about how you’re going to pay for school, when we’re already worried about graduating, doing well in classes, and what we’re going to do after — getting a job or going to grad school,” she said.

Instead of dropping as many as 1,000 students from classes each semester, Renick reports the number is now closer to 300 or 400. Since 2012, Georgia State has awarded 4,287 retention grants with an average award amount of $900, Renick said. More than 60 percent of recipients who were seniors have graduated within a year, and more than 75 percent of other recipients were still enrolled at Georgia State a year later.

The school has been lauded in recent years for using data to boost retention and graduation rates. Between 2011 and 2013, the overall graduation rate rose to 53 percent from 47 percent. More than half of students come from households with incomes low enough that they qualify for Pell Grants, and nearly half are African-American or Latino. While these groups are less likely to graduate than their white and affluent peers on most campuses, at Georgia State that’s no longer the case.

A centralized data system is what makes the retention grants possible.

“If you’re dropping a student on a Friday, you can’t tell them two weeks later that you have a grant for that. You have to be nimble and get the information to students immediately,” Renick said. “In the past it would have taken staff trying to correlate and work things out, it wouldn’t have worked for students trying to get back into classes and keep up with the work.”

That’s part of what makes the Panther Retention Grants an important potential model for schools that are trying to keep lower-income, first-generation students on track to complete their degree, according to Sarah Bauder, a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on higher education.

“There’s an upward trend of looking at student data,” she said. “But the culture of higher education is still very siloed. The bursar’s office — which is very black or white, you pay the bill or you don’t — doesn’t talk to the financial aid office, which may have extra money, and that office isn’t talking to registrar’s office, so they wouldn’t know if the student dropped a class.”

Plenty of other colleges and universities offer small grants to students with an unexpected financial shortfall. But at most of those schools, students have to know the grants are available and apply for them.

At Georgia State, “students don’t have to self-select, they don’t have to identify an emergency,” Bauder said.

The program is paying off for the school, too. A student could be dropped for failing to pay $400, but their account total might be as high as $12,000, Calhoun-Brown said. Once they’re dropped from classes, Georgia State loses the $11,600 the student already paid.

That’s why the university contributes general fund money to the program now. The rest comes from donors, who Renick said like to know relatively small contributions can make a meaningful difference.

The retention grants do come with a few strings attached. Students have to meet with an academic advisor to make sure they’re on the shortest path to their degree, and they’re required to complete online financial literacy training.

“They make sure they have a plan to cover any other shortfalls,” Calhoun-Brown said. “That really helps because we’re not just giving them the money and saying hopefully this won’t happen the next time — that’s wishing on magic.”

That training has changed the way Ahmed handles her finances.

“Ever since my fiasco, I’ve been very careful in terms of examining my financial situation and examining my student accounts. I know a lot of students don’t do that — especially in my scenario when you think everything’s funded,” she said. “I’m a lot more financially literate now.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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