College Persistence: Does Moola Help?

In the coming weeks, I'll be writing about college persistence. Not access/admission. Persistence is what happens once a kid has: a. chosen a college, b. taken an aid package, and c. shown up for Semester 1

Specifically, I'm interested in persistence of MATCH School grads and those of similar charter schools. These are generally kids from poor families. College is expensive. One would expect financial barriers to be the key obstacle to persistence.

A few days ago, I blogged about the story of 2 rich guys who'd offered a bunch of middle schoolers that they'd pay full tuition if the kids ever made it to college. I asked you to predict how many of 59 kids ended up with college degrees (Answer: 11).

Today's question concerns giving grants (not loans) to collegians. They were given:

A $1,750 grant per semester for up to ten semesters (fall and/or spring semesters), making the total maximum award $17,500 per student. Students are first chosen for the award after they begin college (thus it does not affect the decision whether and where to attend) and the grant is transferable among all public colleges and universities in Wisconsin.

How much did this grant bolster college completion rates?

An excellent new study examines this question. The authors write:

Public policy, coupled with demonstrable labor market returns and a corresponding societal emphasis on college attendance, has successfully induced many children from low-income families to attend college—but many who start do not finish degrees.

Agreed. For example, KIPP found that about 90% of its first cohorts of alums entered college but only 33% graduated. KIPP is extraordinary in sharing its data.

Among those students who make the decision to enroll in college, to what degree do financial constraints continue to affect their desire and ability to persist year after year? This is a difficult question to answer since programs that alleviate financial constraints typically allocate aid before college entry, challenging the analyst seeking to identify independent effects on both initial enrollment and continued persistence. Yet the low persistence rates among entrants, and governmental resource constraints make it especially important to know whether financial aid is contributing to completion rates.

Got that? We really don't know much about the effect of Pell Grants and so forth. It seems like a good idea. Is it?

We use the random assignment of a private Wisconsin need‐based grant to estimate the impacts of financial aid on college persistence among Pell Grant recipients at 13 public universities over three years. For equity and efficiency reasons, governments use conditional cash transfers to reduce the relationship between family income and college attainment, but prior research suggests that financial aid generates only modest positive effects.

This is the first experimental study of a program resembling the longstanding federal Pell Grant program, but with fewer paperwork requirements and an award process that facilitates the identification of effects on college persistence, independent of initial college choice.

I expected to see some nice upticks in college success. But that's not what happened.

We find that on average the grant increased neither enrollment nor credit attainment; the only notable positive average treatment effect was a 28 percent increase in the proportion of students completing 60 credits over two years but this was offset by a reduction in credits among other students.

An exploratory analysis further suggests that the program’s small average treatment effects mask considerable heterogeneity. In particular, it appears that students with a low (pre‐randomization) propensity to persist in college received sizable positive benefits from the cash transfer, while students who were already more likely to persist in college received no benefit, and some may have been negatively affected.

If you are interested in this topic, the whole study is worth a read.

With all the joking about U-Wisconin and its policy of easy A's, I figure I should give props to the authors: Sara Goldrick‐Rab, Douglas N. Harris, James Benson and Robert Kelchen.

The funders are: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Institute for Research on Poverty, and Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.