Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, many college students across the country faced challenges in meeting their basic needs, including access to food, housing, childcare, and transportation. These barriers, combined with rising prices relative to income and grant aid, are a key reason that over 36 million former students have left college without earning their degree. The pandemic has exacerbated students’ financial issues, and many more have chosen not to enroll or continue their education as a result. This alarming trend has increased the importance of identifying and scaling institutional programs and strategies that effectively address students’ financial needs.

Institutions have implemented a variety of programs aimed at protecting and supporting students in the face of unexpected financial trouble. One promising solution is retention or completion grant programs–micro-grants or emergency aid programs that immediately provide financial support to students who are otherwise on track to continue their education or graduate but are at risk of stopping out due to an unpaid balance to the institution. One of the pioneering and most expansive examples is Georgia State University’s Panther Retention Grant (PRG) program, which has awarded over 10,000 grants to thousands of students since the program’s inception in 2011. The program, which specifically targets students who are in good academic standing and have exhausted all other sources of aid, automatically awards up to $2,500 to clear students’ unpaid balances and allow them to remain enrolled for the term.

With generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ithaka S+R conducted the first study to estimate the causal impacts of the program on student outcomes and institutional finances. 

What did we learn? 

  • Receiving a Panther Retention Grant reduced the time to degree across the full sample of students as well as for Pell recipients and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups.
  • We observed significant impacts of PRG receipt reducing cumulative debt across most analyses, likely due to grant recipients enrolling in fewer terms post-receipt and, as a result, being responsible for fewer tuition payments.
  • We could not definitively determine whether the grant helped students graduate who otherwise would not have.
  • We did not find evidence that grant recipients persisted to the subsequent term at higher rates than non-recipients.

We have identified a number of areas for future research on micro-grant or emergency aid programs that may contribute to a broader understanding of the efficacy of such programs. These include a further investigation of the impact of micro-grants on retention and students’ psychological well-being, as well as their impact on longer-term outcomes such as labor force participation and earnings. We would also like to study which programmatic components of micro grants are most beneficial to students and institutions. While we used historical, de-identified student administrative and finance data for the current study, a more qualitative approach–including focus groups, interviews, and surveys–may provide a more in-depth view of how these grants affect students’ college experiences, perceptions, and career trajectories, as well as help improve program design and administration.

While our findings suggest that retention or completion grant programs such as the PRG program offer a promising solution to students’ financial difficulties, more work is needed to fully understand the impact of these programs, and the conditions under which they are most effective. With the right design and strategic implementation, such programs can serve an important role in helping students remain enrolled through graduation in a post-pandemic world full of new financial obstacles.