Here's What It Really Takes to Boost College Completion Rates

 photo:   Syda Productions /shutterstock

photo:  Syda Productions/shutterstock

Although college enrollment and completion rates have risen, those effects have not been felt across all socioeconomic strata. According to a recent study, among the nation's top income quartile, the proportion of young people earning college degrees increased from 36 percent to 54 percent between birth cohorts from the early 1960s and the late 1970s. In contrast, among young people in the bottom quartile, degree completion increased from 5 percent to 9 percent for the same time period.

Ensuring more low-income and first-generation students are ready for college is a popular project among policymakers and funders. But readiness is only part of the battle. Once enrolled, these students often require ongoing academic, social and financial support to persist to graduation. Foundations large and small have funded projects and initiatives aimed at college persistence and completion.

We've written about a number of these programs in the past, including the University Innovation Alliance, a collaborative of 11 universities that disseminates best practices for retaining and graduating more students from low-income backgrounds. The work has the support of prominent foundations, including Lumina, Gates and Kresge. Other funders supporting a range of college persistence and completion programs include Helios Education Foundation, Citi Foundation, and Great Lakes Higher Education Philanthropy.

And just last week, we reported on a major gift by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to Bowdoin College to fund a new program on that campus known as THRIVE to "substantially transform the college experience and improve the graduation rates of low-income students, first-generation students and those students traditionally underrepresented on college campuses."

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The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) is another prominent funder with a keen interest in college completion. Since 2004, its Dell Scholars Program has helped disadvantaged and first generation students fulfill their educational aspirations. But Dell Scholars is not just a scholarship program. The foundation believes that increasing the college completion rates of low-income and first-generation students requires not only financial assistance, but also a variety of academic, social and cultural supports.

So how has this program performed in getting students across the finish line? Quite well, suggests a recent study of the Dell Scholars Program, which found that its participants are more likely to persist beyond the second year of college, as well as to complete a degree in four or six years. The study, "More Than Dollars For Scholars," examined the impact of the Dell Scholars Program. By capitalizing on the program's selection process, the authors determined the effects of the program.

The study is worth a closer look, given how many funders and higher ed institutions want to boost college completion rates. 

To become a Dell scholar, students must apply in their senior year of high school, have at least a 2.4 grade point average, fulfill Pell Grant eligibility criteria for low-income students, and intend to enroll in a four-year college or university. After a ranking and weighting process, the program selects 300 students as Dell scholars. Participants receive $20,000 in scholarship funds and a laptop computer. They also receive ongoing monitoring and support. At certain intervals, the program collects data on scholars' academic achievements, financial aid, work hours, emotional well-being and other factors. Students who exhibit risk indicators are flagged for follow-up. This enables program staff to offer more intensive support to those at risk of not completing college.

In their study, authors Lindsay Page, Stacy Kehoe, Ben Castleman, and Gumilang Sahadewo concluded that while participation in Dell Scholars has no real impact on initial college enrollment or early persistence, it demonstrates significant impact on later-year persistence and graduation. This finding separates Dell Scholars from many other college readiness and persistence initiatives, many of which use initial enrollment and freshman-to-sophomore retention as key metrics.

To examine these impacts of the Dell Scholars program, the authors compared participants to a matched set of similar students from a national dataset of first-time college students. The study found that Dell Scholars were 8 to 12 percent more likely to persist into their third year of college, 6 to 10 percent more likely to complete a degree in four years, and 9 to 13 percent more likely to complete a degree in six years.

Noting the resource-intensive nature of Dell Scholars, the study's authors also conducted what they describe as a "back of the envelope" cost-benefit analysis. They conclude that the program has a positive impact overall, while acknowledging some shortcomings and assumptions in their calculations.

These results are encouraging, not only for MSDF and its Dell Scholars Program, but for all funders interested in college persistence and completion programs. The study indicates that the right combination of supports—academic, social, cultural and financial—can increase college completion rates among low-income and first-generation students whose rates have continued to lag behind their more affluent peers, despite increases in past years. These successes, however, come at a cost, and require sustained commitment by both recipients and funders.