December 8, 2023

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) and Temple University have released a guide for higher ed institutions on how to implement graduation grants for their students.Dr.  Christel PerkinsDr. Christel Perkins

Completion grants are funds given to students who need them to complete their degree or academic journey.

APLU and its sister organization, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, partnered with Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in a five-year randomized control trial (RCT) to study graduate grants at 11 APLU institutions, an effort. funded by a US Department of Education (ED) Institute of Education Science (IES) grant.

This practitioner guide was partially funded through this grant, said Dr. Christel Perkins, USU Deputy Executive Director, APLU Assistant Vice President and Lead Author of the Handbook.

“This guide was meant to be a companion, so it’s also funded by the grant, so it’s directly related and a result of the grant,” Perkins said. It’s really more of a qualitative description of the implementation of completion grants.”

Although the RCT study found that completion grants did not improve graduation rates over three years, most of the 11 schools in question continue to offer them, many have changed implementation methods, and many have since shown positive effects on completion, according to the guide. As such, the guide aims to qualitatively explore these effects at seven schools that chose to share how completion grants are being implemented on their campuses.

“We really want to encourage our members to think very critically about the types of innovations and practices that they are implementing at their universities,” Perkins said. “And as we mention in the guide and in the research, completion grants have grown in popularity and … we don’t want to [our institutions] to simply adopt something because it is popular. We really want them to increase student success by really expanding the evidence base there.”

The handbook offers advice to schools on a number of fronts, including what kinds of partnerships to form; what data to measure and examine; how and when to award completion grants; and what to tell the students.

The schools surveyed said that determining how close a student was to graduation was more difficult than it might seem. The guide advocated the use of degree maps, claiming that they were a better measure.

“The RCT required students to achieve 25% of the credits required for graduation. However, participating universities have explained that this measurement does not necessarily mean that a student is on track to complete within one year,” the guide said. “Although 120 credits are required to complete a typical four-year degree, the average student graduates with 135 credits, the result of taking courses that are not related to their major, changing majors or programs, or transferring.

“Practitioners should consider contextualizing the accumulated credit numbers with an overview of student degree maps, which are more accurate indicators of how close a student is to graduation.”

The guide also recommended pairing graduate grants with other resources and supports for students in need because “participants reported that students who received graduate grants were also more likely to apply for graduate aid to address acute financial barriers to student success, such as uncertainties of basic needs and other non-academic factors.”

Completion grants shouldn’t be handled by financial aid offices alone, but instead involve other valuable stakeholders on campus, Perkins said, which the guide also advises.

Amanda BierbrauerAmanda Bierbrauer“Completion grants are a promising practice or intervention, but it’s really important that universities looking to implement them understand how to get to the ‘right students,'” Perkins said. “I feel like … the theme that runs through all of these recommendations is really, ‘Are you using all of your data resources that are available to you?’ “Are you partnering with key stakeholders like academic advisors who have very close relationships with students and can understand some of these many factors that contribute to whether or not they continue on their academic journey?”

Participating institutions themselves can also benefit from the guide. Amanda Bierbrauer, associate vice president for enrollment management and student finance at Portland State University, said the school intends to take lessons from the guide to support its own completion grant efforts.

“I think they’re a great opportunity to help students who may be struggling but don’t know where to turn for help. Or are students in those situations where they’ve run out of financial aid and are really close to being done,” Bierbrauer said. “I think it’s great that an institution can do this and help them get across the finish line to their degree. Since the APLU study was more about randomly giving money to students, we didn’t do any outreach or relationship building or other resource tied to those when students won awards.

“So I think for us it’s another level of student service that we’re going to look at because we’ve done it with other different types of emergency or problem funds and we’ve found that it has a big impact on students.” preservation and completion.”

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