Completion Grants Pioneered at Georgia State to Expand Statewide

Staff Report

Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

When former Georgia State President Mark P. Becker donated to the university’s scholarship fund in 2011, he asked staff members to find a new, more creative way to support students in need.

The money seeded the creation of an innovative grant program that has now benefited more than 16,000 Georgia State students and is the basis for a new statewide need-based scholarship approved by lawmakers earlier this year.

Panther Retention Grants are micro-grants given to students at Georgia State who are on track to graduate but in danger of being dropped from their classes because of modest tuition shortfalls. Preference is given to students close to graduating. The grants top off at $2,500, though the average grant awarded is about $1,000.

The new statewide completion grant program created by House Bill 1435, which will be administered by the Georgia Student Finance Commission, was developed with input from and data collected at Georgia State University. The state program closely mirrors the Panther Retention Grant, providing students in need who’ve completed 80 percent of their degree programs with up to $2,500 in financial aid.

The aim of the programs is to prevent students from dropping out because they’ve exhausted their eligibility for other aid, like the HOPE Scholarship or Pell Grant, and can’t otherwise cover the full cost of tuition.

For students like Ridge Hudson, an English major who will finish his bachelor’s degree in December, receiving the Panther Retention Grant meant not having to further delay graduation. While working two and three jobs to pay his tuition, Hudson, 31, has attended school on and off for the past decade, sometimes taking time out as he worked and saved. In 2019, he found himself a few hundred dollars short at the start of the fall semester.

Having exhausted his student loans, he was faced with a choice between dropping classes he couldn’t pay for or working more hours, eating into the study time he needed for classes he was already in.

“I was actually working multiple jobs, doing all I could to pay for school, and sometimes it just wasn’t enough,” Hudson said. “The grant was just that little extra boost I needed to kind of alleviate the pressure. I didn’t want to keep pushing off classes or cut my course load in half because I could only afford so many classes.”

Hudson said he’s received Panther Retention Grants twice since 2019, and is on track to take the final three courses he needs to complete his degree this fall, paying his tuition with the help of scholarships and money he’s earned working at Northside Hospital.

Timothy M. Renick, founding executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State.

According to Timothy M. Renick, the founding executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State and former senior vice president for Student Success, only about 30 percent of students who leave the university for financial reasons before graduating ever return. At the time the Panther Retention Grant was started, Georgia State was dropping about 1,000 students per semester because of unpaid balances.

“We wanted to find a way to prevent those students from stopping out in the first place and losing momentum,” Renick said. “The fact that this innovative, data-based approach to helping students is now effectively written into state law really is testimony to the influence of Georgia State’s student success work.”

Targeted at students in good academic standing, within a semester or two of graduating who have exhausted other means of aid and with unpaid balances less than $2,500, Panther Retention Grants are deposited into students’ accounts with no need for students to apply.

According to Renick, as many as 85 percent of students who receive a Panther Retention Grant graduate within a year. In a report released earlier this year by research firm Ithaka S+R, the authors found students receiving the grants also graduate more quickly and with less debt.

Daniel Rossman, a senior researcher at Ithaka S+R, called such completion grants a “promising solution” for supporting students in the face of unexpected financial trouble.

“The pandemic has exacerbated students’ financial issues, and many more have chosen not to enroll or continue their education as a result,” Rossman wrote. “This alarming trend has increased the importance of identifying and scaling institutional programs and strategies that effectively address students’ financial needs.”

Renick said by focusing on students who need support for just a semester or two as they finish their degrees, the state’s investment is likely to pay off well in the long run.

“If the state can invest a few hundred dollars or even $2,500 and take someone who was going to be a college dropout and turn them into a bachelor’s degree holder, that’s not only the right thing to do morally, it is money well spent from a fiscal perspective,” Renick said. “With a bachelor’s degree in hand, these individuals will earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more on average over the course of their careers, contributing more to local economies and the tax base.”