In 2015, the United States spent $31.4 billion on Pell Grants to help provide improved access to higher education for low income students. However, up until recently, the Department of Education had no way to determine the effectiveness of the investment. That left many policy makers questioning the value of continued funding.

While studies have convincingly shown that Pell Grants improve access to higher education, data was lacking on whether Pell students completed their degrees once starting them. This is a distinction with profound consequences. The earning potential is 30% higher for students who complete a four degree versus those who only completed some college. Moreover, the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor’s degree is less than half that of individuals who have completed some college.

This problem has a compounding effect on low income students because low income and minority students are more likely to finance their education through debt – a phenomenon that was significantly worsened as states disinvested in public higher education during the great recession and schools closed their budget shortfalls by raising tuition.

This year, the Department of Education relied on a data analysis by the Education Trust and while not complete, we are now getting a fuller picture of the success rates for Pell students relative to their non-Pell peers. In general, schools that enroll a greater percentage of Pell students experience lower graduation rates for those students. However, the latest data indicates that some public universities that enroll the highest percentage of Pell students bucking the trend and are graduating those students at rates close to or even above their non-Pell students. The following schools ranked at or near the top in those statistics and have shared their approaches to helping low income students succeed.

California State University, Stanislaus

Contact: Tim Lynch, Associate Vice President, Communications and Public Affairs

Are there any specific policy changes that have been made at your institution to improve the graduation rate and/or time to graduation both for students in general and for low income students?

First, Stanislaus State has a long-standing culture of helping students succeed — a culture that extends from the classroom to advising offices to the library and administrative offices.

In addition, the university has used its allotment of student success funding from the CSU to focus on improving student retention and graduation rates. Among the areas of focus are:

  1. A) Hiring more tenure-track faculty
  2. B) Enhanced advising
  3. C) Addressing bottleneck classes

What specific programs has your school implemented to support academic success for low income students?

Through Student Support Services, low-income students can avail themselves of a host of opportunities. They include: assigned academic advisors, peer mentoring, tutorial assistance and writing programs. Our GROW website, available to all students, is a valuable resource for those who are serious about improving their writing, which, of course, if fundamental to success in the classroom across disciplines.

Which ones have shown the most promise?

Advising is seen as a high-impact practice, which is why it has been enhanced and will continue to receive attention.

Are there any new initiatives that you’re planning in this area?

New writing resources will be available to students starting this summer, but the project is still in its nascent stages, so I can’t really elaborate other than to say that it could prove to be a valuable, easy-to-use quick-feedback tool.

A closing thought: As I’m sure you know, we are designated as an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution). Many of our students are the first in their family to attend college, and many are nontraditional students who have numerous responsibilities off campus. Our success with Pell recipients and our ability to serve as an engine of upward mobility are accomplishments of which we are rightfully proud. They reflect the mission of the CSU as The People’s University, and they are especially important in a region such as ours, which has a major need for more college graduates.

CUNY Bernard M Baruch College

Contact: Mary Gorman, Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management and Strategic Academic Initiatives

Are there any specific policy changes that have been made at your institution to improve the graduation rate and/or time to graduation both for students in general and for low income students?

Baruch College’s only program aimed specifically at low-income students is our SEEK opportunity program, which serves talented students from financially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We currently have approximately 600 undergraduates in this program, which has existed for 50 years, and our numbers are growing. SEEK provides not only full financial support, but a host of academic and social support services as well, particularly intensive in the first year (including a mandatory pre-freshman summer academic skills program), but lasting throughout a student’s career at the College.

More broadly and as important, Baruch College offers free tutoring to all undergraduates through the Student Academic Consulting Center, and free individualized writing support through the Writing Center. Our Center for Academic Advisement runs an early alert program that solicits mid-semester feedback on first semester students (both freshmen and transfers) and then acts on any concerns by providing specifically tailored intervention services based on the difficulties a student is encountering.

Additionally, Baruch College’s  Office of Financial Aid Services does significant outreach to make sure that students are aware of the need and merit-based funding available to them and are on top of critical deadlines.

What specific programs has your school implemented to support academic success for low income students? Which ones have showed the most promise?

Recently, we’ve begun to take specific actions to address the gap in retention and graduations rates between students from underrepresented groups – specifically Black and Latino students in our case — and the general undergraduate population. Two years ago we began by offering a pre-semester academic skills “boot camp” to interested students, with follow up touch points during their first semester.

This year, we expanded the program significantly to lengthen the boot camp, to provide monthly programming throughout the entire year, and to launch a peer mentor program for first-year students using highly engaged upperclassmen. We are calling the program our “Success Network.”

Although it is too early to make a full assessment, the program has proved very popular and participants outperformed, in terms of GPA and credits earned, their peers in this first semester. Currently, we are seeking funding from external sources to extend programming through the students’ full four years, to include internship and career exploration, building relationships with faculty mentors, and preparing for life after college.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

Contact: Bernadette Alden, Director of Marketing & Communications

Are there any specific policy changes that have been made at your institution to improve the graduation rate and/or time to graduation both for students in general and for low income students?

According to MCLA President James F. Birge, as Massachusetts’ designated public liberal arts college, MCLA is committed to supporting all students each step along the way to earning their bachelor’s degree.

“It is part of MCLA’s mission and public purpose to provide access to a high quality, liberal arts education at an affordable cost,” Birge said. “Our faculty and staff are devoted to our students’ success.  While our professors provide vital academic support and encouragement, our admissions and financial aid employees dedicate themselves to ensuring that our students — some of whom may not otherwise have had an opportunity to attend an institution of higher education — maintain the means to persist and earn their bachelor’s degree.”

We have made a very deliberate effort to build a culture of promoting success and high expectations for all students. Our Center for Student Success and Engagement (CSSE) was established as a holistic resource for success and graduation completion by gathering under one roof the College’s academic advisors, peer advisors, financial aid and bursar staff, career and internship counselors, and special student support services. It is a place where students find “one-stop support” that is physically convenient and student-centered.

CSSE also contributes to the First Year Experience Program (FYE) and Peer Advisors to strengthen our ability to identify students who need support, especially in the crucial first weeks of college life.

In an effort to provide students with financial aid information, MCLA’s Financial Aid Office collaborates with a number of departments on campus to provide students with multiple high-touch, personal contacts.  These, together with a variety of hard copy and electronic announcements during the admissions and financial aid process, help reach students with this important and necessary information. SALT is a financial literacy web program developed by American Student Assistance that MCLA subscribes to for use by current students and alumni.  It is free to students and offers information on budgeting, financial aid, loan repayment and credit scores. Along with financial aid information, it also provides information on internships, resume tips and job searches.

We gather and share data with faculty and staff and try to model and encourage the habits of mind that will lead to good practices of planning, goal-setting and self-reflection of our students. We are looking for the practices and strategies that will benefit all students and enhance their success.

What specific programs has your school implemented to support academic success for low income students? Which ones have showed the most promise?

Among the programs we have begun are 30 by 3, that tracks first year students to ensure they have 30 college credits earned by the start of their second (sophomore) year, and which provides counseling for them to do so. We have had every major program create a four year degree map that shows how the major can be completed in eight semesters of full-time enrollment. And, this year, we continue to pilot an initiative in which faculty and professional advisors create a course shell for their advisees in our learning management system, Canvas, to automate the routine aspects of advising and allow for deeper conversations and exchanges during advising meetings.

The 30 by 3 program and the intentional programming for undeclared students have shown consistent gains in persistence and retention. We also believe the Advising with Canvas initiative has shown early promise in making advising deeper and more effective for holistic student development.

We plan to design a sophomore year program to continue to support student success and help students plan and track their own progress and achievements. We are exploring software that would allow us to create and use a co-curricular transcript to help students track their experiences and activities both in and of classroom.