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APLU and Temple University Releases Guide on Higher Ed Completion Grant Implementation

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

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

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

This practitioner’s guide was partially funded through that grant, said Dr. Christel Perkins, USU deputy executive director, APLU assistant vice president, and primary author of the guide.

"This guide was meant to be a companion, so it's also funded through the grant, so it's directly related and a deliverable from the grant,” Perkins said. “But it really focused more on how are universities currently using completion grants post-RCT. It's really more of the qualitative description of completion grants implementation."

Although the RCT study found that completion grants did not improve graduation rates over three years, most of the 11 schools in question continue offering them, many have changed implementation methods, and many have since indicated positive effects on completion, according to the guide. As such, the guide is meant to examine these effects qualitatively on the seven schools who opted to share how completion grants are being implemented on their campuses.

"We really want to be encouraging 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 been growing in popularity, and ... we don't want [our institutions] to just adopt something because it's popular. We really want them to increase student success by really increasing the evidence base there."

The guide offers schools guidance from multiple fronts, including what kinds of partnerships to form; what data to measure and examine; how and when to give out completion grants; and what to communicate to students.

Schools interviewed said that determining how close a student was to graduating was more complicated than it seemed at face-value. The guide advocated for the use of degree maps, claiming them to be a better gauge.

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

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

The guide also recommended pairing completion grants with other resources and supports for students in need, because “participants reported that students who received completion grants were also likely to request emergency aid to remedy acute financial barriers to student success, such as basic needs insecurities and other nonacademic factors.”

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

Amanda BierbrauerAmanda Bierbrauer“Completion grants are a promising practice or intervention, but it's really important for universities who want to implement them to understand how to get to the 'right students,'” Perkins said. “I feel like ... a theme that's going throughout all of these recommendations is really, 'Are you utilizing all of your data resources that are available to you?' 'Are you partnering with key stakeholders like academic advisers who have very close relationships with students and can understand some of those multiple factors that are contributing to whether they are going to continue in their academic journey or not?’"

Even the participating institutions themselves may benefit from the guide. Amanda Bierbrauer, associate vice president of enrollment management and student finances for Portland State University, said that the school intended to take lessons from the guide to bolster its own completion grant efforts.

"I think that they're a great opportunity to help students that may be struggling but don't know where to reach out to for help. Or there are students in those situations that have run out of financial aid and are really close to being done,” Bierbrauer said. “I think it's great that the institution can do that and help them get across the finish line to their degree. Since the APLU study was more about just randomly giving money to students, we did not do any sort of outreach or relationship-building or additional resources tied to those when the students got the awards.

“So I think for us, that's another level of service to students that we're going to look at, because we've done that with other various types of emergency or hardship funds and found that that seems to have a large impact on student retention and completion.”

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