Divided We Learn

For students teetering on the edge financially, micro-grants help them finish college

UNC-Charlotte finds 95 percent of completion-grant recipients stay on track to graduation

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Every semester, thousands of students drop out of college because they are a few hundred dollars short of being able to pay their bills.  Many are only a few credits shy of graduation. Most are already working one or more jobs to keep up with their college costs.

At many colleges, students cannot register for the next semester if they owe money – and not just for tuition, but for lab fees, parking or library fines and room and board expenses.

At the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, administrators fretted about seeing so many people drop out when they were nearing completion of a degree. The associate provost, Tina McEntire, said the university loses about 640 students each semester —and that 70 percent of them said they left because of financial problems. So administrators began offering completion grants — usually around $1,000 — to help many of these students over the finish line. They’re called Gold Rush grants.

Heather Oakes, a single mother of three daughters, was one. To support her family, she said, “I took out every bit of student loan they’d allow me, and I went back to school.”  When she fell short near the end of her progress toward a degree in water engineering, the mini-grant helped keep her in school. And as important as the money, she said, was the emotional support — knowing that someone believed in her ability to complete the job and graduate.

For Carimar Batista, her senior year included working two jobs, keeping up with academics and being involved with student activities. “I was constantly stressed,” she said.  She feared she’d have to drop out, but a Gold Rush grant came to her rescue. The university says 95 percent of Gold Rush recipients have graduated or remained enrolled on track toward graduation.

At Georgia State, one of the pioneers of this idea, the average grant is about $900, and graduation rates, especially for low-income students, have improved substantially. The effectiveness of completion grants is being studied by the University Innovation Alliance, an 11-member consortium of public universities (including Georgia State) that strive to share best practices with each other, and by the U.S. Department of Education.

This story about higher education micro-grants was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Emrys Eller

Emrys Eller is a journalist and filmmaker in New York. He makes video and radio about education, health and environmental issues. See Archive

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