With all of his financial aid exhausted by the time he reached his junior year at Georgia State University (GSU), Luis Perez began to wonder if he would ever receive his bachelor’s degree.
“It’s completely stressful going into your senior year knowing you don’t have the money and everyone else is talking about graduation,” Perez says. “And it’s like, ‘Will I even make it to that?’”
Already working as a full-time janitor, Perez took on a second job as an overnight caretaker.
“So I started doing that and it was awful because I couldn’t focus on school,” Perez says. “I was making money to pay for school but I couldn’t focus because I was tired.”
In dire need of a solution, Perez began to search for scholarships. After applying for a dozen or so, he won a scholarship for $1,000 but it still wasn’t enough to cover the cost of his last few semesters at GSU, where the average annual cost is more than $15,000.
Perez continued to search and soon discovered the school’s Panther Retention Grant program. The program was created by GSU in 2011 to “fill the gaps” between what students have paid and what they owe so that they don’t have to drop out or stop out of school because of small shortfalls in resources, says GSU Vice Provost Timothy M. Renick, who also serves as vice president for enrollment management and student success at the institution.
Renick says that thousands of students were ending up in such a situation year after year.
“We were dropping more than 1,000 students a semester from their classes because the students could not cover the full costs of their tuition and fees,” Renick explains. “When we looked at the data, we found that many of the students were academically on track and doing everything they needed to do to complete their programs, but they were seniors who were running out of eligibility for other types of aid.
“We also found that, in a number of cases, they were only short a few hundred dollars of covering their charges, and only a semester or two from graduating.”
Retention and graduation
For the institution, helping the students paid off. GSU calculated a 200 percent cumulative “return on investment” intuition and fee revenues over the life of its program, according to “Foiling the Drop-out Trap: Completion Grant Practices for Retaining and Graduating Students” — a report released earlier this year by the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities.
The report offers insights from 10 urban-serving institutions across the United States — including GSU — that take myriad approaches to graduation, retention and student success, including completion grant programs for students at risk of stopping out because of lack of funds.
The retention grant program at GSU ended up being a “lifesaver” for Perez, who was able to quit his second job and focus on school after he obtained a retention grant for $2,500.
“If it wasn’t for the retention grant, I don’t think I would have known how I would have done it,” he says of finishing school. “All the stress went away.”
Now, Perez is set to graduate in May. But his story gets even better.
As a result of being able to finish his studies at GSU, Perez scored an $18,000 merit-based scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh later this year to pursue a Master of Social Work degree. He says he was connected to Pitt through a conference he attended in his capacity as president of the BSW Social Work Club at GSU.
“I couldn’t have done that if my tuition wasn’t paid,” Perez says. “My little brother, he didn’t complete his diploma, and I’m hoping maybe after he sees me graduate and my older brother graduates, maybe he’ll think further ahead about his life.
“My other sibling, my older sister, she didn’t complete high school and a lot of my family didn’t complete high school.”
Perez says that there’s a need for better college advising for students when they are still in high school.
One of the reasons he exhausted all of his financial aid, he says, is because, when he first graduated from high school, he didn’t know what he wanted to study or how student financial aid works.
“In the beginning I didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” Perez recalls. “I didn’t know anything about student loans. I was fresh out of high school and I just signed the paper.”
He ended up first going to the Art Institute of Atlanta, a private, for-profit school where the average annual cost is about $27,000 and only about 1 in 4 students graduate. In addition, most Art Institute of Atlanta grads end up making about $31,600 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a White House-led initiative meant to give students a better sense of the cost of a given college — and the likely educational and employment outcomes — before they enroll.
“I spent about $60-something-thousand in art school,” Perez says. “And even though I received my associate degree, that’s a lot of money for a degree that basically I’m not using. I have about $80,000 worth of student debt so I still have to face that.”
Results and takeaways
Thus, as retention and completion grants continue to get attention, Perez’s story shows how the grants might not be as necessary as they apparently are now if more students have proper college advising and loan counseling earlier in their academic careers.
As for the effectiveness of the retention grants and completion grant, GSU reports positive results.
“Since the program’s inception in 2011, we have brought more than 7,300 students back into their classes via the program,” Renick says. He says the average grant has been $900, and 88 percent of the students who receive grants have graduated or are still enrolled 12 months later.
“Hundreds of students are graduating every year who otherwise would have dropped out or stopped out of college,” Renick says.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, stresses the need for caution in concluding that retention or completion grants are causing more students to graduate because there is no research to support that claim. Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which focuses on research-based solutions for students who face financial obstacles in obtaining a college degree.
“In theory, the grants seem like a smart idea,” Goldrick-Rab says. “Georgia State has a little bit of data suggesting their effectiveness, but nothing that proves the observed improvements are due to the grants.”
Goldrick-Rab says that she is hopeful that retention and completion grants will undergo more rigorous evaluations in the future.
The lack of research is one of the reasons that the APLU recently held a competition for nine public universities to each apply for $50,000 in grant funding to help plan their own retention and completion programs or build upon existing pilot programs.
“One of the conditions of the grants will be that they provide us with their data for the next two years, so we’ll go from having the data on a handful of institutions to having data on a much larger number of institutions,” says Shari Garmise, vice president for the APLU Office of Urban Initiatives and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities.
“That will give us some good insight on not just whether it works,” Garmise says, “but perhaps more importantly under what conditions it does and doesn’t.”
Senior staff writer Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected].