Small Grants, Big Impact

Modest bonuses improve academic success for community college students with significant need, study finds.
May 22, 2006

A relatively small amount of money can go a long way in promoting success among community college students, according to a new study.

In a study that followed low-income community college students in Louisiana for three semesters in 2004-5, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit group, found that financial incentives improved student grades and retention.

As part of their “Opening Doors” program, Delgado Community College and Louisiana Technical College-West Jefferson offered some students $1,000 per semester on the condition that they maintained at least half-time enrollment and at least a C average.

A sample of students eligible for the program -- those with financial need beyond a Pell Grant -- were randomly assigned to either a group that could receive the Opening Doors scholarships, or a group that could not.

In the first semester of the program, about 61 percent of Opening Doors students enrolled full time, as opposed to about 52 percent of the other students. The scholarship students took and passed more courses, dropped courses less often, and had an average grade point average of 2.3, as opposed to 2.1 for the other students. In the second semester, the GPA gap widened to 2.5 for Opening Doors students -- 58 percent of whom were enrolled full time -- to 2.1 for other students -- only 39 percent of whom were enrolled full time.

In addition to the money, scholarship students were also paired up with advisers who reminded them of the various benchmarks -- enrolling in enough courses to be at least half time, for example -- that had to be met for each of the $250 or $500 installments.

Thomas Brock, director of young adults and postsecondary education at MDRC, and lead author of the study, said that the performance boost probably had something to do with the combination of the financial incentives, and with the special advising.

“I think it was the whole package,” Brock said. “What we hear from students is that they appreciated the encouragement, the fact that somebody was interested in them and their situation on campus, but that clearly the money helped a lot.”

Brock said that many of the participants were single mothers who had Pell Grants, but still had significant financial need.

The students could use the scholarship money in any way they saw fit. “It was intended to help them through school,” Brock said. “That was the strong message.”

Many of the students used the money for child care, transportation costs, or as a cushion that allowed them not to work as much overtime.

“I don’t have a vehicle, so the [scholarship money] helped with bus rides to and from school, also for childcare,” wrote one single mother whose input is quoted in the study report. The mother said she would not have enrolled if not for the scholarship, but that, once in class, she was an honors student, which opened other scholarships up to her.

Brock said that having the performance standards “not out of reach,” was important, and that the actual amount of the money might be essential to affect student performance. He compared the program to one in Ohio that gives $300 over two semesters without regard to performance. “We are not seeing anywhere near the same effect as Louisiana,” Brock said. He added that “the offer of a thousand dollars” seems to really resonate with students in a way that anything ending with “hundred” might not.

In the third and final semester of the Opening Doors study, scholarship students were still registering for more courses and performing better.

Brock said that it’s rare to see such large, sustained improvement from a modest investment. He said that the investment could pay off for community colleges whose funding is determined by enrollment.

The Opening Doors program was shut down in the summer of 2005 – pre-Hurricane Katrina – because state funding dried up.


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