Micro-Grants as Stop-Out Prevention at University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Stopouts and dropouts, especially coming late in an academic career, cause deep concern especially at institutions that primarily serve adult students and commuters. Many stopouts intend to return but never do, and two rounds of stopping out almost assure that a student will never finish their degree.

What cause stopouts and dropouts late in an academic career? And what can higher education institutions do to propel these students toward graduation?

We invited Tina McEntire, Associate Provost at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to come on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how their Gold Rush micro-grant program keeps students from stopping out late in their degree for financial reasons. She also shared how 95% of micro-grant recipients at UNC-Charlotte have either successfully graduated or are on track to do so.

Causes of Stopouts and Dropouts Late in an Academic Career

“We conducted a stop out research study last year, and it really was prompted by reviewing our aid eligibility over four years,” Tina said. “What we found is that 670 academically eligible students stop out for one or more terms every single semester. Obviously, that concerned us.”

Many of UNC-Charlotte’s stopouts had earned 60 credits or more. They were halfway to graduation deciding to leave school, and most of them were strong academic performers. It wasn’t the degree’s length or its challenge that prompted them to take time off.

Instead, 74% named finances as their reason for withdrawing, and 57% said they needed to enter the workforce and work more hours in order to afford college.

“The most shocking thing for us,” Tina said, “was that when we looked at their loan debt, their average loan debt was actually higher at the time of stop out than what our graduate average loan debt was, so they had accumulated more debt more quickly than our students who were graduating. We knew then that we had to do something to intervene.”

Seeing a request for proposals cross her desk sparked an idea in Tina’s mind. What if a microgrant program could address the unmet financial needs of students at a high risk of stopping out?

In August 2016, UNC-Charlotte launched its Gold Rush Grant Program, a completion grant program focused on students who are close to graduation and hold a 2.0 GPA or higher. Due to money restrictions, students also have to be North Carolina residents. Most importantly, they must demonstrate unmet financial needs.

Each qualifying student receives $1,500.

The grant is not 100% free money. Students have to put skin in the game. So, UNC-Charlotte introduced future building activities such as completing a financial literacy workshop and paying back a loan or taking a resume writing workshop and getting the resume approved through the career center.

What restrictions did UNC-Charlotte put behind their Gold Rush micro-grants?

There are no limitations in what the microgrants can be used for. Some students use the Gold Rush grant towards their tuition, other students use to buy their books, and still others help feed their families.

“We have seen students who said, ‘I was able to buy my books this semester with this money. I wasn’t able to buy books last semester,’ Tina told us. “We’ve had feedback from another student who said, ‘This is the first semester I’ve worked less than 30 hours. This grant helped me pay for my utilities.”

Success rate of microgrants in student completion

UNC-Charlotte tracks its grant students closely and compares them to a control group.

What they discovered is that students who received the grant take more hours each semester and are progressing faster towards graduation. In fact, the overall graduation rate is currently 24 points higher for the Gold Rush grant recipients over the control group.

Besides the hard numbers, Tina also collects feedback from grant recipients.

“We’re surprised at how many actually give us feedback, which is great, but (also) how many of them have thanked us for the future building activities. We’ve had so much feedback from our students that says, ‘I should’ve gone to the career center earlier. I hadn’t been before. I’m so glad that you made me go.”

Next-steps advice for institutions considering micro-grants

“My number one advice is to have a control group,” Tina said. “Being able to say that to your advancement, your donors is, ‘Here’s what the full need looks like. Help us get there to meet more student need.”

To do that, you need hard data. So track your results. How many students are actually looking at the number of credit hours they’re taking? Has that increased with a completion grant? Compare graduation rates between your grant recipients and your control group. In other words, prove your program’s worth.

“And publicize it widely,” Tina said. “We have such a good story to tell. We’re really taking a group of students who’ve invested their money and their lives and themselves into their education. They’ve been successful, and we’re just helping them get to that last little bit.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Tina McEntire from University of North Carolina Charlotte. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.