Ascendium supports efforts to scale effective institutional practices that ensure learners complete degrees on time and without excess credits. That’s why it joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the University Innovation Alliance’s multi-year initiative to expand completion grants programs to all 11 of its member institutions.
The alliance has now released its Completion Grants Playbook, a suite of resources that synthesizes the institutions' experiences using targeted completion grants to boost student retention and graduation rates. The playbook and supporting materials offer clear, practical guidance on how institutions can establish and leverage such grants for students from low-income backgrounds.
Completion grants are targeted to students who are very near the end of their college program and have school account balances that could prevent them from earning a degree. This happens because most institutions, including the 11 in the UIA program, prevent students from registering for classes if they carry account balances above a certain threshold. At some institutions, this means something as small as an unpaid library fine or parking ticket can prevent a student from registering for classes, leading to a cascading series of events that can derail students’ progress permanently.
To be eligible, students had to be seniors, currently or recently enrolled and in good academic standing. They also had to meet income and financial aid requirements and have an unpaid balance of $1,000 or less. According to the playbook, 5,000 students received grants, with the average grant award being $741, and 83% re-enrolled or graduated within four terms of receiving the grant.
The playbook offers a qualitative analysis of institutions’ experience with these grants and notes the surprise of some as they inventoried their policies and realized just how many were keeping their students from progressing.
The playbook organizes detailed recommendations in three sections.
- Understand institutional barriers and student financial needs, including drop and hold policies, the availability of summer aid and the unique needs of transfer students.
- Design and implement the grant awarding process, including communicating and sharing data between offices, to deliver aid at the most opportune times.
- Evaluate and share outcomes from the plan, including communicating with internal and external audiences.
The availability of the playbook amplifies the knowledge UIA gained through their analysis and allows other institutions to learn from their findings and adopt and scale their own efforts — key parts of our focus area to remove structural barriers to success. Available as a web resource, the playbook also has a downloadable version, along with an executive summary, an action guide, a planning toolkit and a detailed list of campus resources (email signup required for some items).